The right to life

Climate deniers versus children of the Global South

Uncomfortable comparisons by a human rights and climate activist 

rp

First draft: 2017. This revision: 2020. Further information in German: link. To print this page, copy-paste to Word and delete the formatting. The content is based on research:
Nolt, J. (2011). How harmful are the average American's greenhouse gas emissions? Ethics, Policy and Environment, 14(1), 3-10. text
Parncutt, R. (2019). The human cost of anthropogenic global warming: Semi-quantitative prediction and the 1000-tonne rule. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2323. text


Summary


Today's biggest issue is being ignored. Our carbon emissions are putting two billion children in developing countries on climate death row. We, the residents of rich countries, are pretending to be innocent.

For those children, the combination of climate change and poverty is a deadly threat. The way things are going, most of those young lives will be cut short by effects of climate change: famines, floods, droughts, storms, deadly heat, disease, conflicts, and/or migration. That will be the greatest tragedy in human history. Those who don't believe this is true are urged to consult reputable summaries of the scientific literature, e.g.: IPCC, Scientists' WarningExtinction Rebellion.

Worse, we of the Global North are causing these deaths with our emissions. Some are more guilty than others. The most guilty are the influential climate deniers who are obstructing the inevitable global transition to sustainable energy.

Many people still don’t realize how serious this is, and it’s understandable. Nothing like this ever happened before. Besides, to understand climate science you need some physics. I have the luxury of a good education that includes to a Master’s degree in physics. That helps me to understand the basic problem: how quickly things are changing relative to geological timescales, how the oceans have so far absorbed most of the heat, how the process will continue for centuries or even millennia even after human emissions have entirely stopped, and how climate feedbacks and tipping points work.

In 2012, wanting to break the taboo and attract attention to the unprecedented enormity of this problem, and aware that a regular statement would be ignored, I published a controversial argument: If the death penalty were limited by international agreement to people who cause a million deaths -- saving all prisoners on all death rows everywhere -- some influential climate deniers would become candidates. I also explained why the death penalty is never justified: any dangerous person can be rendered safe by life prisonment.

Years later, both scientific research and public discussions about the climate crisis are continuing to ignore the fundamental rights of two billion children in developing countries as if they did not exist, or as if a white life were worth more than many black lives, the response to my text suggesting a ratio of a million to one. Humanity's deep-seated racism and stubborn failure to address today's most important issue are pushing us ever closer to the ultimate brink of self-destruction and extinction.

In the uproar that followed the discovery of my text, climate deniers asserted their right to life. That was hardly necessary. No-one is threatening them. They enjoy white privilege. Two billion children in developing countries don't have that luxury. Their right to life is being destroyed by our carbon emissions. Things will only improve if carbon emissions are urgently and rapidly reduced worldwide.

It boils down to empathy. Are people going to start caring, or are they not?
Here's an amazing thing: The long and detailed Wikipedia page on Children's Rights doesn't even mention climate change (at least not in July 2020). Not even in passing! But that is just one example. Many other such rooms contain an elephant that is quietly being ignored.

We will know when empathy is back. People will start putting children's rights on the top of the climate agenda. Not just in word, but also in deed. Is that possible? If so, how can we achieve it?

How can we prevent warming exceeding 2°C?

It is now 2020. Over a century has past since a large groups of scientists understood anthropogenic global warming. Half a century has passed since a large group of scientists recognized climate change as an existential threat. More than half of the anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere has been emitted since the UN started holding annual climate conferences in the 1990s. Even worse: global emissions are still rising.

To prevent a global catastrophe with over 2°C of warming, we urgently need rapid system change. How can we achieve that? Climate activists seem to have tried everything. Progress is far too slow. Time is running out.

I propose a new discussion about our individual and collective responsibility for future climate deaths. We can calculate the number of future deaths that are caused by any activity. The carbon budget for 2°C of global warming is about a trillion tonnes of carbon. That will probably cause a billion premature deaths, spread across a century. That is only an order-of-magnitude estimate, but it is the best we can do. It lies between a likely best case of 300 million climate deaths and a likely worst-case of three billion. Therefore, burning roughly 1000 tonnes of fossil carbon causes a future premature death due to climate change. That's the "1000-tonne rule" (
more).

If you think the predicted numbers of deaths in the previous paragraph are exaggerated, you are not alone. Most people have no idea of the size of the human tragedy that we are currently causing. We are not being told. The main point is this: People need food and fresh water to survive. Climate change will seriously affect both. Population growth is an additional aspect. Consider Africa: the current population of 1.3 billion is expected to grow to 4 billion by 2100. We hope that it won't, but that is the current direction. At the same time, agricultural production and water supplies are both expected to fall due to climate change. There is also the effect of extreme heatwaves. People start to die from heat exposure when wet-bulb temperature exceeds skin temperature. In the future, that will happen increasingly often and for longer periods, rendering growing areas uninhabitable. For these reasons, 
2°C of warming will probably cause a billion climate-related deaths in Africa alone. My estimate of one billion for the whole world is deliberately conservative.

Now consider an average upper-middle-class person or "frequent flyer" in a rich country. Her/his carbon footprint is about twice the national average:
50 tonnes CO2 equivalent per year. Her/his lifetime emissions approach roughly 4000 tonnes of CO2 or 1000 tonnes of carbon (the ratio is 3.7:1). That's enough to kill one future person. These very approximate figures include the effect of other greenhouse gases emitted by aircraft, or emissions linked to the water needed to grow cotton for a T-shirt -- the "outsourcing" of carbon emissions to poorer countries (more).

Responsibility for future climate deaths depends on income. The rich, with their palaces, private jets, and fossil-fuel investments, emit enough to kill several people each -- perhaps hundreds. Lower-middle class people emit enough to kill about half a person
(more). Influential climate deniers are causing thousands of future deaths by preventing climate action; the number could exceed a million for the most powerful. In a big-picture perspective, today's "top billion" (the global North) is killing the future "bottom billion".

How can this message be expressed?

I have been trying to explain the future fatal consequences of our carbon emissions for years, in different ways. The astonishing thing is that many just don't get it. Even kind, well-meaning, smart people don't get it.

So let me repeat: We really are responsible for future deaths. Our emissions really are killing people. Billions, probably. Therefore, nothing could be more important than cutting all carbon emissions as soon as possible. This is merely a logical conclusion.

People often pretend to understand, change the subject, and continue as if they did not understand. How can we reach people with this message? How can we enter their heads and hearts? One approach is to make creative comparisons. Consider this:


Death penalty supporters may be evil, but everyday middle-class people in rich countries are 1000 times more evil.
This time, the number "1000" is calculated differently: c
urrent global carbon emissions are killing roughly 10 million future people every year (roughly a billion spread over a century), whereas the death penalty is killing a few thousand per year (over 1000 in China). Death penalty supporters are giving their governments permission to kill certain criminals, which is shocking enough -- but the average upper-middle-class person or frequent flyer in a rich country (like myself, and many people reading this text) is actually killing a future person with their lifetime emissions, which is at least 1000 times worse.

We are not guilty of murder. There is no motive to kill, and most of us do not realise what we are doing. But we do know three things:
Insofar as we have known all three things for a long time and have not changed our behavior accordingly, we (the middle-class citizens of rich countries) are guilty of involuntary manslaughter. That verdict applies to most of us. It certainly applies to me, considering how far I have flown in my life. If ever there was an "inconvenient truth", that's it.

Have I clarified that this is actually about life and death? Every life has the same value. My life, your life, the life of an influential climate denier, and the life of a child in Bangladesh -- all have the same intrinsic value. We belong to the same species. If we don't look after each other, it will all be over.

The number 1000 is a useful one. It is also the contribution
to global warming of one economy return ticket on a typical intercontinental flight, measured in Big Macs (more). Let me explain. Producing 1 kg beef also produces 15 kg CO2. That's enough for 10 Big Macs. The CO2 produced by the said flight is over 1.5 tonnes per economy seat, or 1000 Big Macs. In fact, the effect of flying on global warming is about twice the effect of the CO2 due to other greenhouse gases and their interaction, so make that 2000.

For reasons of this kind, I have now practically stopped flying, driving, and eating meat. Given the facts, what other option do we have? I also spend much of my spare time informing others about this situation (e.g., in social media) and contributing to political climate action (Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future). Many others have made similar lifestyle changes. For the sake of the world's innocent children: please join us.

Please also find the courage to talk openly about how bad this situation really is, and consequently how urgently we must stop all carbon emissions everywhere. Hardly anyone has the courage to do that, as I found out in 2013.

Contents

Introduction
What I wrote
What happened next
Straight-faced satire and Socratic irony
Question? or exclamation!

The aim and logic of my text
The_deniers'_response
What_is_a_climate_denier?
What might have happened

My_background_and_motivation
Effective_altruism
Today's_most_important_issue
The_inherent_value_of_human_life
The_word_"kill"

The_death_penalty
Why_oppose_the_death_penalty?
The_principle_of_proportionality
Legal climate mitigation
Making_denial_illegal
Climate_change_versus death_penalty
Climate_death_row
The_US_situation

Poverty_and_climate_change
Philosophical_and_ethical_issues
Climate_change_and_human_rights
What_I_am_really_"calling_for"

Reducing personal emissions

My personal emissions
How to reduce global emissions

The Catholic_condom_ban
Similar_statements
Inching_toward extinction
The_bottom_line
Extracts_from_selected_emails

Introduction

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good / Oh lord, please don't let me be misunderstood
--Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott, Sol Marcus, Nina Simone (1964)


From a human-rights perspective, the
most important issues in history have always been the those that threatened the largest number of human lives, either directly or indirectly. While non-human lives are also important, we humans have always been strongly and deeply biased toward our own species.

If that is true, today's most important issue is surely the deadly threat of climate change for the world's children. The lives of two billion children in developing countries will probably be cut short by the diverse negative consequences of anthropogenic climate change.
This threat is bigger than any other threat currently facing humanity. Nuclear war, for example, could cause a similar number of deaths, but the probability that it will actually happen is lower. The probability that climate change will cut short the lives of at least a billion people in developing countries is now approaching 100%.

The biggest political force behind climate change used to be the growing demand for energy. When it became clear decades ago that burning carbon is destroying humanity's future, the biggest force behind climate change shifted. Gradually, influential climate denial became more important. By that, I mean any public discourse that prevents climate action. If not for influential climate denial, the world would have almost entirely converted to sustainable energy by now. The knowledge, technology, and economic tools that are necessary to bring about this transition have been available for decades, and have steadily improved. Instead, global carbon emissions have been increasing almost continuously, the only interruptions being for quite different reasons (global financial crisis, corona virus).


It follows from this that preventing influential climate denial is today's most important task. Given how difficult that is, it is also today's biggest challenge.

Astonishingly little is being done.
There is plenty of talk but precious little action. Many of those who understand this problem and could make big progress toward undermining climate denial are afraid of being attacked by the global climate denial movement. The lack of moral courage is staggering. Take for example the legal profession and the global community of legal scholars. There is indeed some interesting legal literature on this topic, but alongside today's news and social media, it is practically invisible. 

Just to clarify some basics, the chain of cause and effect is roughly as follows:

In short, climate denial is causing untold millions of future deaths. That is not a spontaneous conclusion, nor is it uttered wildly or in anger. On the contrary: it is one of the best-supported statements in the history of science. It is consistent with an enormous amount of careful research that has been written and reviewed by experts and published in leading international journals in relevant disciplines. The amount of research of similar quality that contradicts it is tiny. The consensus is overwhelming.

It follows that preventing influential climate denial is a matter of utmost and unprecedented urgency.
The primary aim of the present text is to draw attention to that issue. That was also the primary aim of the scandalous text that I published in 2012 with the spectacularly provocative title "Death penalty for global warming deniers?". I wanted the deniers to wake up and start considering the devastating consequences of their actions. In some cases, I evidently succeeded.

By saying this, I am not trying to justify what I did. That text was certainly problematic. A couple of passages should never have been written, or should at least have been formulated more carefully. But the text did raise a number of important issues that were otherwise being suppressed, and continue to be suppressed. The word "important" in the previous sentence could be an outrageous understatement, if these turn out to be the most important issues ever in all of human history. That's why I am referring back to the "death penalty blog" here, and I will continue to do so below.

My 2012 text was not originally about the death penalty. The original text, which is lost (just as previous versions of the current text are lost), was about the deadly future consequences of climate denial for hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of people. I added a discussion about the death penalty later, to attract attention to the deadly future
consequences of climate denial, lest they be ignored, and to wake people up to how unutterably evil climate denial is. If I had not done that, no-one would have read my paper. An urgently necessary discussion about the mega-deadly consequences of  climate denial would never have happened. Meanwhile, the deadly consequences of climate denial are still being ignored as if two billion children either did not exist or did not matter.

If you arrived at the present text by following a link labeled "Death penalty", please be aware that you have just fallen for the same trick, and accept my apologies.
The words "death penalty" were again intended to attract your attention to today's most important issue. That issue is not the death penalty. The task of ending the death penalty worldwide is of course an enormously important one. No question about that. The point is that the task of mitigating global climate change, to avoid at least some of the expected human consequences, is even more important. Much more, if every person and every death has the same value.

Anyway, I hope the trick worked this time. Time is running out. Please read on. Please also think about how you might personally contribute to global climate solutions, which is the main thing.
Needless to say, everything you read here, and everything I wrote in 2012, is my personal opinion. Like the deniers, I enjoy freedom of speech.

"Called for"?

Just before Christmas 2012, upon discovering my text in the internet, various climate deniers sent distorted interpretations to sensationalist media. Some media consequently reported that I had "called for" the death penalty for climate deniers. The relatively few people who had actually read and understood my internet blog knew that was not true.

My heading ended with a question mark -- not an explanation mark. I had avoided words like "should" and "must". I had addressed a series of crucially important 21st-century global issues. I had formulated a thesis and carefully considered arguments for and against (more).
My argument about climate denial was limited to a handful of the most influential deniers on the reasonable assumption that they had caused a million future deaths each.

I had also clarified my total opposition to the death penalty at three different points:

I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist, expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently, it does not even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and China will come to their senses soon.

Even mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him, that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a logical argument.

Please note that I am not directly suggesting that the threat of execution be carried out. I am simply presenting a logical argument. I am neither a politician nor a lawyer. I am just thinking aloud about an important problem.

Nothing could be clearer than that. I had also written:

Please note also that I am only talking about prevention of future deaths - not punishment or revenge after the event.

What I had failed to clarify is this: Prevention of this kind can be achieved by a jail sentence. Beyond that, the death penalty would achieve nothing.

Amid the ensuing frenzy, impassioned climate deniers insisted publicly that I wanted to have them killed, which I obviously did not. Ridiculous or not, my only choice in that situation was to delete and withdraw the text and to apologize
In retrospect, that was problematic. How can one apologize for defending the right to life of a billion people? I could have tried to explain that, but people were not listening.

I apologized not only because of the incensed accusations of the deniers, but also because of the ambiguous response from some of the smart, caring people whom I had expected to support me. Evidently, the world was not yet ready for this kind of argument. The idea that our carbon emissions could be threatening the lives of a billion children was evidently inconceivable for many people. Perhaps it still is.

To my surprise, someone found my deleted text in Google Cache and published it at a new address. I hadn't realized that such an enormous cache existed, or if it did, that it was publicly accessible. My attempt to have the new version deleted 
was in vain. That's how I learned that "the internet never forgets". The sensational reactions that followed in the media and climate denial blogs referred to a text that had been withdrawn, deleted, republished without authorization, and -- in spite of that -- not carefully read. For those reasons, the original text is not linked here. Instead, it is linked (again, against my will) to my Wikipedia page.

One might conclude from this that I should let
sleeping dogs lie. But there are good reasons for not doing that. As I argued above, from a human-rights perspective this may be the single most important issue ever, in all of history. Giving up on it could be regarded as the worst ever form of negligence. Beyond that, the continuing availability of my original text and the many misunderstandings about it give me little choice but to explain my original intention. 

What I wrote

First, I warned that climate change will have fatal consequences for hundreds of millions of people. That was obvious then and it continues to be obvious now (more). The problem becomes more acute with every year of missed opportunities. When in the future hundreds of millions of people are dying in connection with climate change, the shocked survivors will be looking back and asking "Why didn't we listen"? Why indeed. By then it will be too late.

Continuing on the topic of anthropogenic premature death, I then explained why the death penalty is never justified. But getting rid of it is not easy. Many countries around the world are still executing criminals, and preventing them from doing so is one of today's great challenges. In spite of our avowedly total opposition to the death penalty, we Europeans happily collaborate with countries in which the death penalty is still happening such as the USA, China, or Japan.

Given that our main task as human rights activists is to sustainably stop the killing by any reasonable means, I proposed a new way to end the death penalty in practice, if not in law: If the death penalty were restricted by international agreement to criminals whose actions had caused a million deaths (incidentally saving all prisoners on all death rows in all countries), some influential climate deniers would become death-penalty candidates.

The most important point in my text was that anthropogenic global warming will cause the premature deaths of hundreds of millions or perhaps billions of people, via complex but well-understood chains of cause and effect. That was obvious then to anyone who considered the IPCC predictions and their human consequences, and it is even more obvious now, but still hardly anyone (including the IPCC itself) has the courage to talk about it. Those few messages I received in late 2012 and early 2013 that addressed this issue did so only to ridicule it.

Meanwhile, there can be no doubt that the claim is true. It is obvious even without reading my article on the topic. I have read all kinds of relevant academic literature and I am not aware of any plausible counterargument. Of course climate deniers are constantly denying any and all aspects of climate science, but to my knowledge none of them has yet managed to invent a good reason why this specific claim might be incorrect. It is time to start talking about the future victims of climate change and their inalienable human rights. Better late than never!


Needless to say, my text was not perfect. It could have been formulated in many different ways. My knowledge of relevant literature in areas beyond my expertise was superficial. Sometimes I missed something, and sometimes I made a mistake.

But one thing is for sure:
Climate change will be greatest tragedy in all of human history. Consequently, mitigating climate change, by getting out of fossil fuels as fast as possible, is the most important and urgent task humanity has ever faced. Protecting the right to life, and a reasonable quality of life, of children everywhere (but especially in developing countries, because they are most vulnerable and most threatened) is task number one. By comparison, everything else is subsidiary. In particular, any complaint of any kind about my 2012 text is trivial by comparison to the ultimate challenge of defending the right to life of a billion people.

The climate deniers were absolutely right to assert their right to life. They should be asserting the right to life of everyone, including two billion children in developing countries. That right can only be guaranteed if carbon emissions are urgently and rapidly reduced worldwide, which means telling the truth about climate change.

Countless organizations in the world and their leaders and representatives agree with the previous paragraph, but at the same time are failing to reduce their own emissions, nor are they taking a stand against fossil-fuel industries and the governments that tolerate and support them. If you are a member of such an organization, please think about what would be necessary to jolt your colleagues into action, considering the enormous number of human deaths climate change will cause. One possibility is to write a shocking text.

What happened next

When I made final changes to my blog in October 2012, there are several important things that I did not know or could not anticipate:
The uproar about my text (I later learned it had been a "shitstorm") was surprising when you consider that I had made a proposal that most people in the world, and even most people in liberal Western Europe, would immediately agree with: to limit the death penalty to people who cause enormous numbers of deaths. I merely considered the implications, asking which people in the world might be candidates if the death penalty were limited in this way.

Readers were as shocked as I was by my conclusions. But it was my intention to shock, in the hope that the world's most important problems would at last be taken seriously. Wake up, world. Hopefully, many people realized the following, perhaps for the first time:
Many climate deniers read little further than the title of my text and missed much of the detail, including the irony of the closing section. They then distorted my message, presenting me as a deeply evil person who wants to "kill all deniers". Impatient, sensation-seeking journalists repeated the deniers' exaggerations and false accusations, again without carefully reading my text.

The aim of my text was not to win a popularity contest, but to defend the human rights of a billion children in developing countries. Sometimes, being disliked is an effective tactic, as Extinction Rebellion discovered years later. Sokrates had made a similar discovery it in the 5th Century BC.

Following the denialist attacks, people expected me to defend myself. I was reluctant to do so, because the lives of hundreds of millions of children in developing countries are obviously more important than my reputation. If I was going to defend anything, it was the basic rights of an enormous number of people. 

Straight-faced satire


Toward the end of my text, I had proceeded to analyze, question, contradict, and make fun of my own argument. The ironic, satirical flavor of my conclusion suggested that the whole text was to be taken with a grain of salt:

People will be saying that Parncutt has finally lost it. But there is already enough evidence on the table to allow me to make the following prediction: If someone found this document in the year 2050 and published it, it would find general support and admiration. People would say I was courageous to write the truth, for a change. Who knows, perhaps the Pope would even turn me into a saint. Presumably there will still be a Pope, and maybe by then he will even have realised that condoms are not such a bad thing!

The point about condoms is this: To my knowledge there has been only one occasion in recent decades in which over a million people have been killed, in the general sense of “causing death”. In the 1980s, as the AIDS pandemic emerged, the Catholic Church refused to withdraw its condom ban, despite urgent advice from international medical and developmental experts. Of those 30 million people who subsequently died of AIDS, very roughly 10% would not have died if the church had canceled its condom ban. Millions of lives would have been saved. But that was not the main point of my text, and we will return to it later. 

Contrary to my strangely confident subtitle ("An objective argument...a conservative conclusion"), my argument was ambiguous. There was no clear conclusion -- let alone a "conservative" one. There were too many unresolved contradictions. The purpose of the ambiguity was
pedagogical. I wanted people to open their eyes, see the main issues, and start thinking and talking about them. So I threw in some irony to highlight the tragic absurdity of causing future deaths with carbon emissions, or taking people seriously who deny that connection. My British-empire-style wit may have gone over the heads of some German or American readers, for which I apologize.

Three astute colleagues (at three different times, in three different countries: UK, Austria, Australia) independently noticed a similarity between my text and the "straight-faced satire" of A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729). That was news to me, but interesting! Both Swift and I tried to achieve humanitarian goals by presenting a text that at first seemed anything but humanitarian.
Swift made fun of British cruelty toward the Irish poor in the early 18th century by proposing that poor children be sold and eaten; I made fun of the shocking cruelty of ignorance-feigning influential climate deniers by proposing they be tried and punished according to their own criteria (knowing that many deniers support the death penalty for the most serious crimes). Like Swift, I repeatedly used the word "propose" to invite discussion; contrary to claims by deniers and media, I never "called for" anything. Here is an example of Swift's sincere-but-absurd "straight-faced" style:

Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, than at any other season; therefore, reckoning a year after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.

Back in the 18th century, any member of the British upper class who for the briefest moment thought Swift was serious and objected to his obviously immoral "proposal" was confronted with the already deadly consequences of British policy toward the Irish: poverty generally reduces life expectancy and causes premature deaths. Similarly, anyone who in 2012/13 accused me of wanting to "kill all deniers" was in the same breath ignoring the untold millions of future premature deaths that influential climate denial is already causing, not to mention the support of many deniers for the death penalty (e.g. in the US Republican party). Climate change really will cause hundreds of millions of future premature deaths, whereas the deaths "proposed" in my text (and Swift's) were entirely fictitious
.

In a final twist, both my text and Swift's invited the reader to detest the author and instead sympathize with others. In my case, readers had a choice. They could sympathize with either a handful of anonymous, highly influential climate deniers or hundreds of millions of anonymous, powerless future climate change victims. In both cases, I was presented as "evil" and excluded from the discussion. Unlike me, Swift had the sense to write anonymously.


For another example of ambiguously satirical content, consider the following provocative statement from near the end of my text:

I don't want to be a saint. I would just like my grandchildren and great grandchildren, and the human race in general, to enjoy the world that I have enjoyed, as much as I have enjoyed it. And to achieve that goal I think it is justified for a few heads to roll. Does that make me crazy? I don't think so. I am certainly far less crazy than those people today who are in favor of the death penalty for everyday cases of murder, in my opinion.

The climate deniers should have congratulated me on this paragraph. It sounds convincing, but -- like much climate denial -- it is blatantly misleading. In fact, the death penalty never achieves anything. If it is possible to prevent many future deaths by silencing an influential climate denier, that can be done simply by putting him or her in jail.

There is a double irony here. If anyone in this story is producing "straight-faced satire", it is the deniers themselves. For decades, the most creative minds in the international climate denial movement have been producing varying degrees of nonsense with the intention of confusing everyone so the fossil-fuel industry can continue its evil work. For a wonderfully systematic list of variously hilarious climate myths, follow this link

If a group of people is saying and writing dangerous nonsense, it is justified to write dangerous nonsense in return -- if only to wake people up and drag them back in the direction of honesty. The strategy works particularly well if people initially don't realise they are being tricked. Consider the case of Alan Sokal, who famously submitted a hoax article to an academic journal. To his delight and amazement, the article was published. Subsequently, academic journals in a certain tradition became more careful about what they published. That was a great achievement.

The difference is that the academic tradition Sokal was attacking or ridiculing was not endangering human lives. Postmodern cultural theorists are unlikely to jump off 20th-story balconies to demonstrate that the theory of gravity is a social construct. By contrast, the tradition of climate denial is surely the most dangerous tradition in the entire history of ideas,
in terms of the number of human lives it will end prematurely.

The provocative ambiguity of my text was at least partly successful. Many readers realized for the first time that climate deniers are indirectly killing large numbers of future people, and started talking about it. Others publicly proclaimed their total opposition to the death penalty and their support for human rights.
In retrospect, that made the accompanying threats, defamation, and cyberbullying seem worthwhile. I realised later that every self-righteous person who presented me as "evil" was a small victory for human rights, even if those people had misunderstood my central message. I do not know whether my text caused long-term changes of attitude to either climate change or the death penalty; probably, there was a small but significant positive effect.

Socratic irony

One of the most influential philosophers in history, Socrates inspired countless generations of philosophers with his insights into morality and ethics, as recorded by his student Plato.

Socrates had a habit of pretending to be ignorant about a given topic in order to expose ignorance or inconsistencies in the arguments of others. But Socratic irony, as this strategy is known, is not a good way to make friends, and perhaps it is the real reason he was sentenced to death in
399 BC. His trial and death represent one of the most famous chapters in the shameful history of the death penalty, another being the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (of which more later). Socrates was found guilty of corrupting young minds and questioning state religion. Four centuries years later, Jesus was accused of blasphemy and treason. I don't want to push the comparison too far -- but in early 2013, I was accused of similar things.

To be sure, I did not realise that I was engaging in Socratic irony when I wrote my scandalous 2012 text. Incidentally, neither did Socrates: the term had not yet been invented. But the intention was similar. Both he and I knew we were being ironic, and both he and I aimed to expose inconsistencies in the arguments of others. In my text, I aimed to expose the following forms of extreme hypocrisy:
I knew these things when I wrote my text in 2012. Feeling powerless to change them, I decided on a radical strategy. I would pretend to favor the death penalty for influential climate deniers, based on a logical argument. I would do that just after explaining in detail why the death penalty is never justified.

The decision to incorporate this contradiction into my text was conscious, but I was less aware of the possible consequences. I only later realized that as an example of Socratic irony my strategy might trick people into the following three responses:
Astonishingly, all of this actually happened.
It is not too late for all three groups of people -- let's call them the benign racists, the climate-denying death-penalty supporters, and the shy, well-meaning intellectuals, for the want of better terms -- to think again:
When are these changes going to happen? A life-and-death question for a billion people is being ignored. What could be worse than that? Discussions about climate change still tend to focus on physics, economics, ecology, or politics. The problem is not only that climate change is the elephant in the room. Within that elephant is another elephant called human rights.

And here's the thing: as long as the above three groups of people are still emitting CO2 at way above the sustainable level
(roughly one tonne per year) and are still not actively and visibly supporting climate-friendly politics, it will be clear that they have not understood. And as long as they have not understood, and given the critical importance of climate feedback and tipping points (another aspect that our fictitious educated person surely knows about), humanity as we know it is more or less doomed.

Upon reading this, many people will feel criticized or offended. But that is not my intention -- nor was it the intention of Socrates, when he was being ironic. Socrates explored ways of approaching the honest truth in dialogue with an opponent. In any case, like my original text, the present text cannot possibly be construed to refer to individuals. Instead
I am trying to formulate the truth about a crucially important issue, as best I can, so that others will understand it and act on it.

It is clearly more important to defend the basic rights of a billion people (a billion!) than to be nice to  influential people in the hope they will be nice in return. That was my attitude when I took the risk of publishing the 2012 text, and it is still my attitude now. Logically, it is the only attitude that is open to me if I am to take human rights seriously. My reputation is important, but not as important as the basic rights of a billion people. By comparison to such an enormous issue, everything else is secondary.

Apart from that, I am merely presenting what I consider to be facts and logical arguments, as Socrates did. If we care about each other and the future, we had better be start being open and honest about the human consequences of climate change. Time is running out.

Question? Or exclamation!

To attract attention and ruffle feathers, I had chosen a deliberately misleading title: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?" People of diverse political colors and stripes pretended not to have seen the question mark and responded as if it had been an explanation mark. Perhaps many read no further than the heading! We live and learn.

In choosing this wording, I had intuitively applied a series of known techniques (more). The heading was short, concise, and understandable out of context. It started with powerful keywords, addressed important current issues, asked a question, excited curiosity, and both surprised and frightened the reader. I had taken a personal risk to attract attention to a series of critically important issues that were evidently being suppressed. How many deaths will climate change cause, especially in developing countries? Who will be held responsible? What will be the legal consequences? Today, Extinction Rebellion is again exploring radical, unconventional, personal-risk-taking ways of attracting attention to the world’s most serious problem. Needless to say, I belong to their strongest supporters.

Other headings may have been more appropriate, e.g.
"Try influential climate deniers for crimes against humanity" or "One influential climate denier can cause a million future premature deaths". But if I had written that, perhaps no-one would have noticed.

The aim and logic of my 2012 text

My main intention was clear from the first page. I wanted to defend the right to life of those countless millions of people who will die prematurely as a result of climate change. 
At the start of my text (in the third paragraph, after two short introductory paragraphs) I had written that

When the earth's temperature rises on average by more than two degrees, interactions between different consequences of global warming (reduction in the area of arable land, unexpected crop failures, extinction of diverse plant and animal species) combined with increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die from starvation or disease in future famines.

Soon after that came this passage:

Even without global warming (GW) (or ignoring the small amount that has happened so far), a billion people are living in poverty right now. Every five seconds a child is dying of hunger (more).The United Nations and diverse NGOs are trying to solve this problem, and making some progress. But political forces in the other direction are stronger. The strongest of these political forces is GW denial.

And this:

hundreds of millions of people may die from starvation or disease in future famines. Moreover, an unknown number may die from wars over diminishing resources

In the public discussion that followed, hardly anyone mentioned these passages, as if those people in developing countries did not exist or did not matter. Right across the political spectrum, people responded to my text acted as if they had missed these central points.

It is deeply shocking that these arguments were ignored. I cannot express the depth of the shock. Words literally fail me. These untold millions of people really exist, and they really will die prematurely as a result of our negligence. 

Today, we are still treating billions of human lives as unimportant by comparison to the right of rich countries to burn as much fossil fuel as we want. 
How much longer do we have to wait for the right to life of two billion children in developing countries to be taken seriously? Surely we are not going to wait until it is too late? Australia was warned in 2008 that bushfires would become more serious around 2020 but the warning was ignored. Is that to be the fate of a billion innocent people?

Given this clear statement of aims, I then presented the following argument:
Given that the death penalty is never warranted, neither in general nor in this specific case, the obvious consequence is that influential climate deniers should be tried for crimes against humanity, and the most appropriate place to do that is the International Criminal Court. The ICC completely rejected the death penalty long ago, for the usual good reasons. The ICC will not change its mind about that even if half the people in the world still think the the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for the most serious crimes. 

If we don't try the influential climate deniers, they will continue to prevent progress toward global climate solutions. They have been doing that more or less continuously for decades, and they will continue to do so unless prevented. By not putting a stop to this deeply evil practice, we are effectively sentencing hundreds of millions of innocent people to premature death in the future as an indirect consequence of climate change caused by our emissions. We are forced by this dilemma to make a choice: Either we defend the rights of two billion children or we abandon them to a fate to which we have contributed. Most people are choosing the cowardly second option. The result will certainly be hundreds of millions of avoidable deaths. By comparison, the hypothetical possibility of the death penalty for a handful of the most influential climate deniers -- enormously shocking by itself -- is relatively minor. Every human life has the same value and (at the risk of stating the obvious) the number one million is much, much bigger than the number one.

Allow me to repeat that I am not proposing the death penalty for anyone. As I explained above and in the original text, the death penalty is never justified. I am instead presenting an argument, with the goal of bringing home the unprecedented urgency of the situation in which we find ourselves.


The argument that I presented can be interpreted in other ways. One approach is to analyze the logical relationship between premises and conclusion. Consider the following premises:

Premise 1. About half of the people in the world still consider the death penalty to be justified for the most serious crimes. We know this from surveys; the exact proportion depends on how you ask the question. Changing their minds is one of today's great challenges.

Premise 2. The most serious crimes are those in which one person knowingly causes enormous numbers of deaths. This should be obvious from a human-rights perspective, in which every life has the same value. One could also estimate the amount of suffering or the number of (quality) life-years lost, but that would not significantly change the present argument. 

Premise 3. The most influential climate deniers are causing or have caused enormous numbers of future deaths. Those deaths will occur, for example, as the future death toll in connection with poverty in developing countries rises in response to multiple side-effects of climate change. Deniers cause future deaths by hindering projects that would otherwise slow climate change.

If all three premises are true, then for those people who (erroneously) believe in the death penalty for the most serious crimes (premise 1), "death penalty for influential climate deniers" is merely a logical conclusion. Needless to say, I am opposed to this conclusion, because I am opposed to premise 1. In general, the conclusion can be changed if we change any one of the three premises.

Changing premise 1 means convincing death penalty supporters that the death penalty is never justified. The outraged public reaction to my 2012 blog suggested that I made some progress in that direction. First, many climate deniers realized that the death penalty is never justified, after imagining being candidates themselves. Second, others who normally never mention human rights suddenly started to talk about them.

I don’t believe premise 2 can be questioned. From a human rights perspective, it is obviously correct, and I am not aware of any other reasonable perspective.

Nor do I believe premise 3 can be changed. The deniers will continue to deny the causal connections, of course. Their behavior is complex and resists a simple explanation. According to psychological theory of moral development, some of them are immature (selfish, dishonest, opportunist, irresponsible). Others may be gullible or lacking in skills of critical thinking. In any case, the law should expose and punish such profound examples of irresponsibility, to protect the rights of others.

However hard they try, the deniers cannot change the logical relationship between the above conclusion and premises, just as they cannot change the laws of physics. Nor can they blame me or anyone else for pointing this out. I did not create this situation! I could cite literature to demonstrate that all elements of the argument that I presented in 2012 existed in advance. I merely put together the pieces of the jigsaw, and then found the rare courage to defend the right to life of a billion people.


The deniers' response

In the first few days after the discovery of my text, I received a very diverse collection of emails. Several people who had understood my message wrote supportively (see below for a selection), but there were more negative responses, presumably because deniers were encouraging each other to write to me on their denialist internet pages. Some presented familar denialist arguments ("the world stopped warming about 16 years ago" ... "the earth's climate is always changing"), while others proposed fantastic theories ("harmonics are found in music and the solar system"). Some responded to the irony of my text ("I haven't laughed that much in a while"), while others were sarcastic ("Did you forget your medication?"). Quite a few sent tirades of abuse (not repeatable here). More moderate denialist colleagues (often insisting on being called "skeptics") sent interesting discussions and made claims with which I could only agree. They wrote for example "I fully believe in the precautionary principle. But there has to be limits", or "Would love to see you try and prove my responsibility for a future death in an open court of law", or "Science MUST allow for honest debate, and so must society".

Many
respondents were simply appalled. Of those, most made it clear that they had neither read my text carefully nor taken my arguments seriously ("I have not read anywhere such a long piece of innate and ignorant drivel"). They didn't realize, or refused to admit, that I was talking about today's most important issue: the right to life of a billion people. While it is certainly justified to express horror at the prospect of an influential climate denier or anyone else dying prematurely, it is much, much more horrifying to ignore the right to life of a million people -- those would will die prematurely in the future as a result of that denier's influence (according to my definition of "influential"). My appalled penfriends were tacitly assuming that the life of an influential climate denier in a rich country is more important than the lives of a million people in developing countries. 

I was unprepared for the suddenness and ferocity of the international denialist response. I had previously published many political texts in the internet about some of today's most important issues (examples are here) and the public response had been almost zero. Later, I realized that many climate deniers were experienced destroyers of the careers and reputations of climate scientists who dared to tell the truth in public. Unlikely me, those deniers were prepared for the political situation created by my text. They applied their finely honed skills to my case with a certain professional efficiency.

The denialist reputation-destroying project got under way quickly. I was accused of a shopping list of things that I never did. I should have expected that. I was criticizing powerful deniers, and lying is what they do for a living -- on behalf of, and funded by, the rich fossil fuel industry. Besides, I can hardly accuse the deniers of exaggerating when I did so myself.

I was introduced in a refreshingly practical way (we teachers call it "learning by doing") to the gentle arts of character assassinationcyberbullying, and victim blaming, all of which involve truth distortion. In a globalized electronic game of Chinese whispers, in which quasi-randomly selected deniers and boulevard media reporters were the players, exaggerated interpretations of my text were re-exaggerated in a hysterical self-reinforcing crescendo reminiscent of climate feedbacks. Deniers reported on their webpages that I wanted to kill them and exhorted each other to send me their thoughts by email. The public distortions of my message fooled many well-meaning, well-informed people. The purpose of the present text, incidentally, is not to restore my reputation. The purpose is the same as the purpose of the original text, namely to protect the right to life of a billion people.

The deniers and journalists repeatedly claimed that I had "called for" the death penalty for climate deniers. I had done no such thing. I had presented an argument, not a manifesto. My heading was a question, not a statement. Rather than "calling for" something, I had repeatedly used the verb "propose". A "proposal" is an invitation to discuss. This meaning was correctly recognized by Austria Presse Agentur (link), whose report was entitled "Uni-Professor stellt Todesstrafe zur Diskussion" (university professor puts the death penalty up for discussion / raises issues about the death penalty). A "call" or "demand" is a different thing. A chef who "proposes" a delicious dessert is not demanding that customers eat it. An academic who writes a "research proposal" is offering some interesting ideas and claiming that they have potential -- not telling a grant agency to fund the project.

Some deniers repeatedly claimed that I wanted to "kill all deniers". In fact, I had proposed saving untold millions of lives by means of a legal procedure that was confined to the most influential deniers and had zero chance of leading to anything beyond fines, jail sentences, and public embarrassment. The deniers knew that, of course. They are not stupid. But they are also great actors, and they jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate their skill at playing the victim role.

My text included a link to the climate action webpage "desmogblog". The intention was to clarify the concepts "climate denial" and "climate denier" by providing examples. That was necessary because the terms are used in different ways. I often ask my students to define their terminology and give examples. Incidentally, I have never had any kind of contact of any kind with anyone involved in desmogblog -- neither before nor after my 2012 text. I simply found their page in the internet. Looking for another Achilles' heel, some climate deniers deliberately misinterpreted my link to desmogblog, claiming that it turned my text into a "death threat". The people listed by desmogblog, they claimed, were the designated victims, and I was the perpetrator. Needless to say, that was patently absurd -- typical denialist nonsense. But very creative! My clearly and repeatedly stated proposal was to limit the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths. That idea can only apply to the most influential climate deniers. At the most, only a handful of deniers listed by desmogblog could possibly fall into this category. Moreover, there is a big difference between making a "death threat" and discussing a possible legal procedure. In any case, it was only a link. Give me a break.

Having established my "evil" status, the
deniers then victoriously cited two or three poorly formulated sentences from my text out of context. That confirmed it. I truly was evil! Used to being presented as evil themselves, the deniers knew only too well what to do. 

The deniers were confusing perpetrators with victims, as so often happens in bullying and harassment. In fact, I was neither perpetrator nor victim. As far as climate change is concerned,
the main perpetrators are influential climate deniers, and the main victims will be a billion people in developing countries. If these two points and their implications were widely recognized, we would be moving faster toward a solution. I was merely standing on the sidelines, trying to tell the truth about this unfolding 21st-century tragedy and thinking aloud about possible solutions.  Perhaps the most serious distortion of the deniers was to avoid the main issue -- the deadly risk that climate change poses for billions of people. Although the point was clear from my text, it was ignored as if those billions of people did not exist. No denier considered it possible that hundreds of millions of people will die prematurely as a result of our emissions, or noticed that this problem is even bigger than the death penalty -- much bigger, because the numbers are so enormous.

It's no wonder the deniers were upset. My blog exposed their massive guilt. Their attempts to make me look guilty and evil were designed to divert attention from their own guilt and malice. Well, they can try as hard as they like to ruin my reputation, but I am not about to give up defending the fundamental rights of a billion people.

I wasn't the first to find myself in this situation, as I discovered a few years later. A well-known climate denier sent me a list of people who had suggested drastic legal responses to climate denial. I was pleased to find myself in such eminent company. Presumably, all listed people were mercilessly attacked by deniers in exchange for their courage and honesty. The statements were dated 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012 (not including my text). Some had argued that climate denial is a form of treason, for which the penalty in USA is still death (as if the Middle Ages had never ended). Others had argued that influential climate denial is a crime against humanity, for which (in some interpretations, but not that of the International Criminal Court) the penalty is death.

The deniers' exaggerated, misleading interpretations were repeated by the media and even by academic commentators, as if deniers were a reliable source of information. Countless people (often with good education and good intentions) took the hysterical denialist claims and sensationalist media seriously -- without carefully reading my original document. They even ignored my first page, in which I had explained my motivation. I was surprised by the failure of many to recognize the significance and urgency of my argument or to see through the bluster and fake sincerity of the deniers. Some evidently understood the issues, but amid the chaos of ill-informed righteous indignation were afraid to say anything. A bit more courage and solidarity might have helped.

The media could have reported that
If the media had done that, people might have begun to understand. If in addition the media had stressed that
then we might have made some progress toward a rational discussion, if not a solution.

What is a climate denier?

Like autism, climate denial is a spectrum. There are many different kinds and degrees of climate denial. But there is a difference. A relatively small proportion of people find themselves on the autism spectrum, whereas a relatively large proportion are on the climate denial spectrum.

Most people reading this text are climate deniers in the weak sense of not doing anything significant to reduce their personal carbon footprint or that of people in their sphere of influence, or not supporting climate action on a political level. I was a climate denier of that kind for a long time and I have a big lifespan carbon footprint. I was acting as if climate change was not happening, was not caused by humans, or was not an existential threat to humanity. I was pretending not to know that the golden age of human civilization is drawing to a close and things will probably get incrementally worse on a global scale every decade for the next century. I was refusing to admit that our present extravagance and indifference is causing the future suffering of our own children. The science was speaking but I was not listening. I was marching in time as humanity
sleepwalked toward global catastrophe.

All of us are guilty, to different extents. Climate denial is happening on many different levels. Almost everyone is in denial about the human cost of climate change -- the number of lives it will end prematurely. Right now, we are involved in the biggest mass killing in history. We are profiting daily from an unfair global economic system that is causing some ten million people to die prematurely every year due to poverty. In addition, our greenhouse-gas emissions are killing perhaps a further ten million (order-of-magnitude estimate) future people every year (more).

Some people are climate deniers in the strong sense of publicly claiming that climate change is not happening, not caused by humans, or not an existential threat. An even smaller number are influential climate deniers who successfully promote the burning of fossil fuels or prevent climate action from happening, and thereby indirectly cause enormous suffering in the future, especially in vulnerable tropical and developing countries. 

For decades, influential climate deniers have been threatening the basic rights of all people everywhere. Motivated by personal financial gain, they have been preventing progress toward climate solutions by suppressing important scientific information, confusing the public, and hindering progress at global climate talks.

Given what we know about the main causes and effects of climate change, a single influential climate denier could indirectly kill a million future people. By "kill" I mean "cause death" or "end lives prematurely".
Thought experiment: What if the number was exactly one million? What if we knew them all by name? According to universally accepted principles of human rights, every one of those 1,000,001 people (including our climate denier) would have the same inherent value and the same inalienable rights. Not one of those people would deserve to die prematurely.

It is hard to exaggerate how bad influential climate denial really is, or how evil influential climate deniers really are. These are people who would risk the lives of untold millions of people (and perhaps all of humanity) to protect their short-term financial interests. Preferring misleading terms like "skeptics" or "contrarians", deniers are little more than professional liars, motivated directly or indirectly by financial gain and often handsomely financed by fossil fuel industries. From a human-rights perspective, influential deniers are up there with the worst criminals of all time. The basic rights of current and future victims of climate change, including their right to life, are obviously more important than the deniers' right to freedom of speech. All of this has been obvious for decades to anyone who regularly reads a good newspaper. I thought people knew that. They should at least have realized it after reading my text. Alas.

Not surprisingly, given their stunning lack of morality, many deniers are also death-penalty advocates. Many members or supporters of the US Republican Party fall into both categories. That exposes an interesting contradiction. How can one support the death penalty for the most serious crimes, while at the same time contributing oneself to the most serious crime of all time? My strong recommendation to death-penalty-supporting climate deniers and climate-denying death-penalty supporters is to consider your own interests and change your views on both topics.

In case the penny has not yet dropped, let me spell it out. Philosophers like to make the following logical connection: if (i) all men are mortal and (ii) Socrates is a man, therefore (iii) Socrates is mortal. If you think (i) the death penalty is justified for the biggest crimes, and (ii) you are committing one of the biggest crimes, (iii) what conclusion might we draw from that? And whose idea was that, originally? It certainly wasn't mine. This contradiction has been out there for decades.


What might have happened


My text was a thought experiment. Many people think the death penalty is justified for the world's most serious crimes. It is not. But what would happen if that idea were applied carefully and systematically? The world be a very different place. For one thing, the lives of a billion children would not be threatened by climate change.

Here's another thought experiment. What would have happened if the many people who self-righteously objected to my text actually cared about other people?

Let's say 200 people publicly claimed that I had “called for” the death penalty for influential climate deniers. Perhaps half of them contributed to internet blogs and the other half wrote emails. Imagine what would have happened if those 200 people had read my statement -- not just the title (including the question mark), but the whole thing. What if they had thought about it and understood what it was really about? Imagine those 200 light bulbs lighting up. Those 200 pennies finally dropping.

Now imagine those 200 people apologizing for their previous postings or emails and instead objecting publicly to the future premature deaths of a billion people in developing countries. Imagine them explaining the indirect contribution of influential climate deniers, but also of all residents of richer countries, to those future deaths. Imagine those 200 people understanding how we, every day, take advantage of an unfair global economic system, and on top of that emit too much greenhouse gas, and how that makes us responsible for the present and future avoidable death toll in developing countries. 

If that is hard to imagine, let's instead try to imagine just ten of those people objecting publicly to the mega-fatal future consequences of climate denial. Still hard to imagine? Perhaps just one person? This line of thought raises an interesting question: Does anyone at all care enough about this to be honest about it? Does anyone have the courage to break the ice? Or have we all secretly agreed in some kind of global conspiracy to avoid talking publicly about our guilt? 

From this brief analysis, and regarding my 2012 text as a kind of social experiment, designed to find out who if anyone has seriously considered these issues, we can now formulate our conclusions. Many people consider the life of an influential climate denier to be roughly a million times more important than the life of a person living in poverty in a developing country whose life will be shortened as a result of climate denial. A million times! We know this because many participants in the public discussion of my text were evidently more unhappy about the possible death of an influential climate denier than the million deaths that that person apparently caused. 

Now imagine asking those 200 people what they think of the following claim: Every human life has the same value, regardless of skin color, gender, wealth, age, religion, and so on. Presumably, they would all agree. Of course, they would say, it's obvious. 

Are we going to start talking about this? Or do we prefer to keep our heads in the sand? An alien visitor from outer space would be astonished at the difference between what humans say about morality and what they actually do. A million to one! The hypocrisy is truly staggering.


My background and motivation

My statement did not appear out of thin air.
Since I became aware of the legal and ethical problems surrounding the death penalty in the 1980s, I have opposed it unconditionally. Since the 1990s, I have been a member of Amnesty International. During that time, I have participated in countless urgent actions and letter writing campaigns to stop the death penalty in different countries -- both in specific cases and universally. Since 1999, my yearly donation to Amnesty has always exceeded €80. In recent years, Amnesty has recognized climate change as a central human rights issue. Amnesty is more important today than ever. Please support Amnesty.

From 2000 to 2010, I became increasingly aware of a basic ethical problem. What is more important to me personally -- the basic rights of billions of children in developing countries, or my personal well-being? If I had a chance to promote their rights, but only by risking my well-being, would I do it? Hopefully I am not the only one asking that question.

Meanwhile, I co-organized a series of projects that brought together research and practice (
NGOs, government, education) in the area of interculturalism and anti-racism and eventually inspired diverse later projects by numerous colleagues. My work included an international conference, and a book. The aim was to reduce racism and xenophobia by applying insights and findings from research in contrasting academic disciplines and collaborating with practitioners.  I was also interested in world hunger and child mortality and the astonishing tendency of rich countries to pretend this is not happening or to underestimate the ethical consequences.

From these projects I learned that climate change is the worst example of racism ever: it is mainly caused by whites and will probably cost a billion black lives. The psychological phenomenon of implicit racism allows us rich white people to ignore the enormous and continuing death toll in developing countries in connection with hunger and preventable disease and get on with our everyday lives (in paradise, as Phil Collins sang).

Many people still haven’t clicked that Black Lives Matter. The message may have reached their heads, but it is still waiting for the journey into their hearts. As an example of how important but difficult this journey is, consider the case of Greta Thunberg, who in late 2018 and early 2019 pushed global climate action forward like almost no one else before or since. She did that by courageously telling truth to power. I am her greatest fan. I cannot express how much gratitude I feel toward her and all the other young leaders who have recently emerged in the struggle for humanity's future. But even Greta's truth was incomplete, because even she (for excusable practical reasons) tends to ignore the main future victims of climate change, namely children in developing countries.

I could only carry out my anti-racist projects in my limited spare time. So I decided to identify today's most important issues on focus on them (more). And here's what I realized: If human lives are the foundation of our value system and every human life is equally valuable, the problem of future premature mortality is even more serious than everyday racism. But premature mortality is itself about racism, because most of the victims are or will be black.

Effective altruism

Between 2000 and 2010, I started to think about effective altruismI am one of the lucky ones with a steady income, a high standard of living, and a good education. That gives me an implicit moral obligation to give back to society and "do good" for other people. For many years I had been supporting organizations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and Doctors Without Borders. I was also actively concerned with issues such as water supples, hygiene, and debt relief in developing countries. I was starting to wonder how to get the greatest positive effect from my charity dollar and limited spare time.

The world has far too many big problems for one person to effectively address all of them, or even a small selection. Therefore, I thought, the most effective approach might be to identify the world's most important problems and focus on them. To do that, we need an objective way of evaluating the importance of an enormous problem.

I favor an approach based on human rights, on the assumption that every person has the same inherent value, and the value of a person is our most important value. Of course, other animals and other parts of the natural world are also enormously valuable. But given that everything is interacting, perhaps the best way to simultaneously promote the well-being of all living things, including all animals (humans being an animal species), is to focus attention on human issues. In a world dominated by humans, it is easier to promote human well-being than any other kind of well-being, because people are mainly motivated by self-interest; but in the long term, one of the best ways to promote human well-being is to promote the well-being of non-human animals and the natural environment.

On that basis, I started to wonder how the world's biggest problems can be identified. An important candidate is hunger, because it causes such an enormous amount of suffering. When I started to look at global hunger carefully, I realized that it is a much bigger problem than most people realize. In terms of premature deaths, it is much worse than violence, even when all violent conflicts in the world are considered. However, violence gets much more media attention. But hunger itself may not be the main problem. The main cause of hunger is poverty, which is causing altogether roughly 10 million premature deaths per year. Poverty, I concluded, should be on the top of every effective altruist's list -- especially given that it could be alleviated relatively easily by repairing unfair aspects of the global economic system.

That poverty is racist, is obvious. From a global perspective, the number of poor people who count as "black" is much higher than the number that count as "white". Conversely, the number of rich people who count as "black" is much lower than the number that count as "white". Poverty is also sexist, for similar reasons.

Another enormous cause of premature death is climate change. I estimate that it is causing premature human deaths at about the same rate as poverty -- about 10 million people per year (more). The victims are not dying now, but in the future. The point about racism and sexism applies equally to climate change. There is also ageism: young people who are alive today will suffer much more from climate change than older people alive today, although the older people have made a much bigger contribution to emissions.

It is difficult to express how enormously shocking the human rights implications of poverty and climate change are. In both cases, most of us in rich countries are deep in denial, actively pushing the problem out of our consciousness. Otherwise we could hardly live our lives -- or at least so it seems. But if more of us made more noise about these problems, we would stand a better chance of constructively addressing them. After that, the need to suppress these enormous problems in our consciousness would be reduced, and we could be more honest with ourselves.

An effective altruist asks what is causing a given problem, and then tries to solve the problem by
systematically addressing the cause. In the case of climate change, the main cause is influential climate denial. Much of the anticipated future death toll in connection with climate change will be an indirect consequence of the influential climate denial of recent decades. For decades, deniers have been systematically impeding progress toward climate solutions. If there is a single reason why almost no progress toward global emissions reductions has been made since the 1990s, it is the lies and misleading arguments spread by influential climate deniers.

The negative consequences of climate denial are so enormous that any reasonable counterstrategy 
should be taken seriously. Moreover, all of us who understand this problem (and that includes all who take the time to read the present text carefully) have a clear moral obligation to act. We cannot continue with business as usual, pretending that we don't know. 

In 2010, when I organized the anti-racist conference "cAIR10", I was frustrated that anti-racist projects often seem to have no long-term effect at all. They attract people who already know and care, while others continue to look away. My colleagues and I were "preaching to the converted". We often wondered together about how to attract the attention of those we had not yet reached and get them to start thinking about the issues.

Given this background, and in an attempt to be effective in the sense of effective altruism, my scandalous 2012 statement was überspitzt, like a pencil that is too sharp. I was angry about, and trying to attract attention to, three of the world's most important issues:

Climate denial. Climate deniers are causing millions of future deaths, but on the whole the legal profession is ignoring the problem. In fact almost nobody is talking about it, as if billions of children did not exist. Death penalty. Countries with great and wonderful cultural traditions such as China, USA, Iran, and Japan (and many others) are maintaining the death penalty for no good reason. Their governments are failing to explain to their people why the death penalty is never justified and never achieves anything.  Racism. Although most people claim to be totally opposed to racism of any form, in practice one white life is still treated as more valuable than a large number of black lives. The reaction to my 2012 text suggested that the number may be as high as a million.
What these points have in common is their connection to human rights. They contradict two basic principles:
Today's most important issue

Many people agree that climate change is today's biggest issue, but if you ask why, you will get different answers, for example:
These are extremely serious issues. No question about that. But from a human-rights perspective, none of them is the main reason. Climate change is not only about polar bears and coral reefs. Of course polar bears and coral reefs are very important. Enormously important. But climate change is also threatening the lives of a billion people. It could kill 100 million people by 2030 and many more in the long term (more).

The rising CO2 concentration of the earth's atmosphere, the laws of physics, the world's burgeoning human population, and the well-known multiple consequences of global warming for humans -- all of that taken together -- will probably mean premature death for a billion people over the next century. What happens after that is anybody's guess.

That is true even if global emissions fall rapidly in coming years and warming is limited to 2°C. Beyond that, every additional degree Celcius
could (over a long period) kill an additional billion people. 

The number one billion is a rough, order-of-magnitude estimate. It can be broken down in various ways.
This will really happen. I am not exaggerating. Doubters should visit the IPCC homepage and read in detail about the modern world's most important issue. Read the 2018 report about the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. Ask yourself:
If we don't start talking about this, the victims of our cowardly silence will be our children and grandchildren, after we die of old age -- still pretending to be innocent. The question, then, is whether we care about our children and grandchildren or not. If we care, we have some work to do. If we do nothing, we evidently don't care.

Many still find these claims improbable, given that hardly anyone is talking about it. But what else can happen when the well-known predictions of the IPCC become reality? Some of us believe in miracles or the power of prayer, but that is not a good management strategy.

By "today's most important issue" I actually really mean "today's most important issue" Nothing has ever been more important than preventing a billion premature deaths from happening. No negligence has ever been greater than our persistent failure to address this problem, both individually (reducing personal emissions by not flying, driving, eating meat and so on) and collectively (dismantling fossil-fuel industries and reducing the emissions of countries, industries, professions, academic disciplines, age-groups and so on). Our unprecedented individual and collective guilt increases with every passing year that global emissions are not reduced.

Put another way. climate change is not primarily a question of physics, chemistry, and biology. Nor is it primarily a question of economics and the natural environment. Climate change is primarily a human rights issue. It is a matter of life and death for millions of people. It is in the first place a legal and ethical problem. 

People will read these superlatives and think I am just another guy in the marketplace pretending to be the biggest, fastest, newest or whatever. But for a change these superlatives are appropriate. There really has never been a more serious problem in the entire history of humankind. There is a real chance that climate change will completely wipe out humanity. Future premature deaths really are the most serious aspect of climate change, and the topic really is being consistently ignored.

The first step toward a solution is to start a discussion. Getting that to happen was and continues to be an urgent priority.

The inherent value of human life

Human lives are the most valuable thing that we know. Every human life has the same value. This is true regardless of anything else, including cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability--even guilt/innocence. It follows that matters of life and death are of primary importance.

These points should be obvious. Almost everyone can agree with them. The question then is how to take them seriously and put them into practice. If we actually do that, the implications are enormous.

The most important issue in climate change is not its effect on the economy (profits, jobs and so on). It is not the effect on irreplaceable ecosystems such as ancient forests or coral reefs. It is not even the staggering number of animals, birds, insects and so on that will die prematurely as a result -- comparable with the horrors of the global meat industry. The global economy, the natural environment, and non-human life are all enormously valuable, but they are not the most valuable thing. The most important issue for us as humans is the number of people who in the future will die prematurely as a result of climate change.

It is tempting to claim that the natural ecosystems of the earth are just as valuable as humans, or even more so. From that viewpoint, it would not be so bad if humans went extinct, if plenty of other species survived. I know that many people are thinking this way, but I am not one of them. Instead, I feel a deep allegiance to my own species. Perhaps everyone involved in the struggle to save global climate ultimately feels the same, at some level.

All of us humans (even the most extreme "eco-warriors") have a deep and undeniable bias toward our own species. If confronted with a choice between saving a human and saving a representative of another species, we will always choose the human. We cannot reasonably claim, for example, that the Amazon rainforest is more valuable than the people who live there, except insofar as all of humanity depends on the Amazon rainforest.

For reasons of this kind, I will focus on the value of human lives and assume that ecosystems are also enormously valuable to the extent that we humans cannot live without them. For that reason alone, the legal work on ecocide by Polly Higgins and others is enormously valuable and should find its way into every national legal system and indeed every constitution.

For those who find my human-centered approach arrogant or species-ist, please accept my apologies. I am aware of the problem and respect your viewpoint. In any case, I am not ignoring non-human life. Instead, I am assuming that the value of non-human life is proportional to the value of human life, and consequently that the human damage caused by climate change will be proportional to the non-human damage. If that is true, the consequences and implications are independent of the distinction between human and non-human life.

The word "kill"

People get justifiably nervous when they read the word "kill". Let me explain what I mean by it.

I mean the standard dictionary definition.
l am using the word "kill" in the everyday neutral sense of ending a life, regardless of knowledge or intention. We can kill with or without knowledge of the consequences. We can kill with or without malicious intent. In all these cases, the word kill means to end life. No more and no less.

"Murder" is different: it is killing with intention. We are not "murdering" future generations with our emissions. We don't want or intend to kill anyone. Not even the worst climate deniers or fossil-fuel CEOs want to kill anyone (at least not to my knowledge).

But our emissions are indeed causing the premature deaths of future people, so the word "kill" is appropriate, and should be used appropriately. We are killing future people with our emissions. That is the naked truth that hardly anyone has the courage to state.

Euphemisms can be problematic. If our emissions are causing future deaths, it is not enough to refer to health effects, as academic and governmental literature often does. Worse, we should not follow the example of military or genocidal terminology for killing such as "engaging", "liquidating", or "evacuating". If people are being killed, we should say that directly and honestly.

Killing, in the neutral sense, is the main issue, and it should be the main thing that we talk about when we talk about climate change. If we want the killing to stop, we have to think of effective and appropriate strategies to stop it. If we talk merely about reducing emissions, for whatever reason (such as preserving arctic ice, or future quality of life in rich countries), all the time carefully avoiding any mention of the main issue, we are unlikely to succeed.


The death penalty

The traditional method of stopping killing, as applied for almost all humanity's history and still considered appropriate by roughly half of the human population, is to identify the people who are primarily responsible, and kill them. In other words, the death penalty, also called capital punishment. That this method is contradictory, is obvious: you don't stop a culture of killing by reinforcing it. You don't stop a culture of anything by reinforcing it. Hypocrisy is not the answer.

People responded to my text as if no-one had mentioned the death penalty for centuries. How could anyone bring up that idea again? Good question. The death penalty is still possible or happening in a very long list of countries. Where is the outcry about that? I respectfully ask all those who objected to my text for any reason to join me as a member and financial supporter of Amnesty International. We are trying to end the death penalty in Afghanistan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Botswana, Chad, China, Cuba, Congo, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jamaica, Jordan, Kuwait, Lesotho, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, USA, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

As my 2012 paper showed, there is no conceivable situation in which the death penalty might be justified -- not even causing the deaths of a million people. The wild discussion that followed the discovery of my blog suggested that many people agree the death penalty is never justified. My paper may also have helped many to make up their mind about that issue. Perhaps many death-penalty-supporting climate deniers changed their mind. If so, that would have been big progress, even if they did not change their mind about climate.

There are many other questions to answer if we want to stop people killing each other. How do we stop the international arms trade? How do we close the international tax havens, which are known to be important drivers of poverty in developing countries? How do we stop the exploitation of developing countries by multinational corporations?

Of these issues, stopping the death penalty -- although enormously important by itself -- is not the most important, because the number of people who die prematurely in connection with the death penalty (perhaps a few thousand every year) is much smaller than other anthropogenic death rates -- people who die prematurely as result of human actions. The number of people being killed in violent conflict is much higher. The number dying in connection with poverty is higher still. Every year, about ten million people die prematurely in connection with preventable poverty. This enormously shocking death toll is as a consequence of human greed and the failure of governments to fairly regulate the global economic system. In addition, human greenhouse-gas emissions are killing about ten million future people every year (more). Altogether, human actions are effectively killing some 20 million people per year.

Take Bangladesh for example. The probability that a child in that country will die in connection with climate change is now roughly 50%, by which I mean much more than 10% and much less than 100%
(more). The probability that a prisoner on death row in any country will be executed is also very roughly 50%, because sentences are often changed to life imprisonment. Moreover, prisoners on death row often wait many years for execution, whereas many people in Bangladesh are now in the 2020s waiting for the day when they become climate refugees. That means either risking their lives trying to move to another country or risking starvation. The difference between the two cases is surprisingly small.

Influential climate deniers have the same right to life as a child in Bangladesh. But contrary to their wild claims following the discovery of my text, and unlike the children in Bangladesh, the deniers are not in danger, nor did my text pose the slightest danger to anyone. I was quite sure of that when I wrote it. The reasons are obvious and need not be repeated here. Moreover, the death penalty is traditionally used by the powerful to control the powerless. Influential death-penalty candidates can save themselves by pulling strings in the background. It is unfortunately not true that "everyone is equal before the law". 

Why oppose the death penalty?

The death penalty is never justified and the reasons are well-known. One is that killing is justified only in self-defense, to save one's life or the life of others from an immediate threat. The death penalty is not self-defense; it is legalized, premeditated killing.


The death penalty is not a solution to anything. 
It cannot bring the dead back to life, nor can it prevent similar tragedies in the future. You don't stop killing by participating in it. This principle applies to the punishment of all crimes, including the worst ever. Following the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46, ten prominent Nazis were hanged, although they could equally have been jailed for life. The death penalty achieved nothing except to continue the cycle of killing that the Nuremberg trials were supposed to stop. Surprisingly, this point is rarely mentioned.

Another reason to unconditionally reject the death penalty is the inconsistency of arguments used by death-penalty fans. Many want the death penalty in response to the most serious crimes, but the most serious crimes are not even recognized as such, let alone punished. From a human-rights perspective, the biggest crime of all is to cause the death of an enormous number of people.
That happens frighteningly often, and my "scandalous" text offered a series of examples. According to this criterion, the most influential climate deniers are the worst criminals of all time, but in current law they are not even considered guilty.

Some argue that the death penalty is needed as a deterrent, but empirical evidence is equivocal.
Careful statistical analyses of relevant variables in different US states failed to find a significant effect (more).  Murder often happens in anger; in the moment, murderers may forget about the consequences. Moreover, potential murderers are not necessarily more afraid of death than of life imprisonment. These are well-known reasons for ending the death penalty forever (more).

Influential climate deniers are a different case. They may work deliberately and carefully, and they may be well informed and have plenty of time to consider the consequences of their actions. But they are still unlikely to risk either the death penalty or life imprisonment. The threat of imprisonment would surely end their activities. Relative to that, the death penalty would achieve nothing.

The principle of proportionality

The principle of proportionality in criminal law holds that the size of a punishment should reflect the size of the crime. That is the idea that many people have in mind when they claim that the death penalty is warranted for the "most serious" crimes. One approach is to say that the seriousness of a crime depends on the number of deaths caused. On that basis, some legal scholars are still  proposing the death penalty as punishment for genocide (more). Others claim that the perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, "deserved" the death penalty because of the large number of people killed (168).

But the principle of proportionality is regularly ignored. As I showed in my scandalous 2012 text, a surprisingly large number of people knowingly but indirectly cause enormous numbers of deaths. Those people are never prosecuted. Others are executed for smaller crimes such as murder (of one person), drug trafficking, rape, blasphemy, treason, and so on. If the death penalty cannot being applied proportionally, it should not be applied at all.

The idea of limiting the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths was based on the equal value of every human life, combined with the principle of proportionality. You can measure the size of a crime by estimating the number of lives that it ended prematurely. According to this criterion, influential climate denial is one of the few most serious crimes of all time. This realization has very serious consequences for those many people who are both influential climate deniers and supporters of the death penalty. They have a choice: either stop denying climate change or stop supporting the death penalty. I warmly recommend doing both.

Legal climate mitigation


Many climate-based law suits have been brought before the courts in different countries. Success has been mixed.

A possible solution might be to focus on the most important problem from a human-rights perspective: the deadly future consequences of climate change.
But the law still seems unable to enforce natural law and defend natural rights, according to which every natural person has the same basic rights, of which the most important is the right to life. It is hardly possible in international law to go to court in one country and defend the right to life of a billion children in other countries. Altruism is not recognized.

Here's a possible angle: Every legal system in the world formally prohibits killing, in the sense of one human causing the death of another. If we want to prevent climate denial, that is a great start. But there is a lot of work to do. Different kinds of legal reform may be necessary.

If our values are based on the value of human lives, preventing killing is the most important goal of law. Therefore, the law must identify those people who are doing the most killing today, that is, those who are responsible for the largest numbers of premature human deaths, and prevent them from doing that. Today, those people, as I explained in detail in my 2012 text (and the arguments were basically correct), are the most influential climate deniers. We need to clarify that climate change is primarily about the right to life of today's children and future generations. To legally defend that right, we must identify and prosecute those who are causing the greatest numbers of future deaths.

One way to clarify that killing is never ok is to end the death penalty universally. The leaders of China and the US could together decide to do that tomorrow, if they wanted. After that, most other countries that still have the death penalty would be under pressure to follow.


The death penalty achieves nothing. But other forms of punishment can achieve a lot. It is certainly appropriate to restrict the freedom of people whose actions are causing millions of future deaths. And nothing could be more important that actually doing that. If we don't, our grandchildren may pay the ultimate price for our negligence.

From a scientific viewpoint, there is no doubt that influential climate deniers are indirectly causing millions of premature deaths in the future. That could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law by inviting expert witnesses to provide opinion and evidence within their area of expertise. But until now, convictions of murder or manslaughter have only been possible if
Climate justice demands that these traditional restrictions be changed. That would have important and possibly far-reaching implications for theories of justice, including natural law, social contract, utilitarianism, consequentialism, distributive justice,  property rights, and reparative justice.

Even after such a reform it would still be hard for a judge to accuse a climate denier of causing a million future deaths, even if relevant experts agreed about that. Attribution would be difficult. There are many uncertainties surrounding the future of global climate, the (social/political) causal connection between climate denial and emissions, and the (physical) causal connection between emissions and climate change. I am no expert, but it seems that quantitative arguments based on risk assessment theory have little precedent in law. We had better change that before it is too late.


More generally, the law is supposed to regulate behavior. In an age of climate change, new, dangerous behaviors have emerged that urgently need to be regulated. So far, the law has failed to meet this challenge. According to Wikipedia, "In his Treatise on Law, Aquinas argues that law is a rational ordering of things which concern the common good that is promulgated by whoever is charged with the care of the community." The implications of this statement for climate denial are obvious, but the legal profession is still essentially silent. Like almost everyone else, legal scholars may be in denial about the existential consequences of climate change. I may be wrong -- I am not a lawyer or legal scholar, so I don't know the detail and I'm not involved in relevant discussions.


Making denial illegal

Astonishingly, lying is not generally illegal. Liars are held to be exercising their freedom of speech, which in the US is upheld by the first amendment to the constitution. The situation in Europe is only slightly better. Thus, influential climate deniers are often considered legally innocent. They have a right to disagree with the scientific consensus, regardless of the consequences.

Lying is only illegal in certain special cases. In the USA, it is illegal to impersonate or lie to a federal agent, make a false claim, or swear a false oath (perjury). Various kinds of fraud are illegal including health care and mail. Libel and slander are also illegal. The supreme court explained that these exceptions involve knowing or reckless falsehood. But surely that applies also to climate denial? 

It is common sense that the
right to life is more important than freedom of speech. Moreover, rights can only be exercised insofar as they don't infringe other, more important rights. If "everyone is equal before the law", every human life has the same value. A million lives are a million times more valuable than one life. Infringements of basic rights that involve larger numbers of people (here, millions or billions) are obviously much more important than those involving smaller numbers, everyone being equal before the law. Therefore, influential climate denial should belong to the worst possible crimes. According to the principle of proportionality, it should attract the most severe punishments.

If Holocaust denial can be made illegal, so can climate denial. A legal foundation to protect the rights of children in developing countries already exists, namely the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is widely respected and partially implemented in many different ways in many national legal systems.

Given the overriding importance of these issues, you would expect to see a public discussion. The legal profession should be addressing the issues now, while we still have time to achieve some kind of justice. By "justice" I do not mean revenge, which achieves nothing, but a reduction in the magnitude of the future humanitarian catastophe in connection with climate change. Guaranteeing the right to life should have the highest priority.

The normal instrument for protecting human rights is international law. Insofar as influential climate deniers are aware of the mega-fatal consequences of their actions (and they cannot plausibly argue otherwise), they are committing a crime against humanity. Insofar as that claim is obvious and uncontroversial, they should tried by the International Criminal Court. If influential climate deniers cannot be held responsible for crimes against humanity (and the legal profession has so far made little progress in that direction), then it is hard to imagine how the basic rights of a billion people can be protected. In that case, the law will have failed spectacularly.

The crime of knowingly causing future deaths by failing to reduce emissions may also be compared with "criminally negligent manslaughter", defined as "homicide resulting from the taking of an unreasonable and high degree of risk" (more). Influential climate deniers have been committing this crime for decades with impunity, as if a billion future victims did not exist.

Climate change versus death penalty

The death penalty is an enormous problem. Ending it internationally has always been urgent. But from from a human-rights perspective, climate change is even bigger. Much bigger.

Consider the numbers. Because they are so approximate, I will express them as orders of magnitude.
Of course the death penalty is never justified and should be stopped universally. It is equally obvious that emitting large amounts of CO2 in an age of global warming is never justified and should be stopped universally. About a half of every tonne of CO2 that is emitted today stays in the atmosphere for over a century and contributes to the future climate death toll (the other half being absorbed by plant life on land and in the oceans). Whereas the death penalty is an enormous problem, climate change is much bigger.

People were surprised to see climate change compared with the death penalty in my text. But the comparison is valid and important. Both are matters of life and death for large numbers of people. In both cases, the death of one group of human beings is caused by another group other human begins. The main difference is one of intention: we do not intend to kill anyone with our carbon emissions. We are doing so nevertheless, and we know it. But we are not talking about it, pretending to be innocent.

I understand that this comparison is shocking and many people don't like it. If you are one of those people, I have a special request. Please find another way of directing attention to the basic rights of two billion children currently living in developing countries, in such a way that they might finally be respected, which can only be done by drastically reducing global emissions. Start talking publicly
about the right to life of two billion children, or find a way of starting that public discussion.

My text implied two links between climate change and the death penalty without stating them directly:
I totally oppose the death penalty and always have. But here’s the thing: if the world agreed to limit the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths, as I proposed in 2012, two big problems would be solved. First, all criminals currently on death row in all countries would have their sentences commuted. Second, the International Criminal Court would try the most influential climate deniers; as always in the ICC, punishment would be limited to life imprisonment. If that project was successful, we might celebrate two victories at once: the end of the death penalty and the end of influential climate denial. Denial would go underground. Projects to limit global emissions would finally have a chance.

In that case, and assuming that climate denial is the biggest hurdle standing in the way of climate action (and has been for decades), the threat of human extinction would become much smaller.
We would finally be on the way to getting climate change under control. Better late than never.

In short, a strategy for allowing humanity to survive with a reasonable quality of life might look like this:
  1. Agree globally to a revision of the universal declaration of human rights. Things have changed since 1948 and many revisions have been proposed. I propose clarifying that the value of a person, defined as a conscious social actor, is the most important value (or another formulation that is neutral with respect to abortion and assisted dying). Moreover, all people have equal value. 
  2. On that basis, start a new drive to end the death penalty completely worldwide.
  3. Try influential deniers for crimes against humanity and jail the guilty. 
After all, the following points are surely beyond question:
  1. The value of a human life is our most important value.
  2. Modern climate change is mainly caused by humans.
  3. Some people are contributing much more to the problem than others.
  4. Climate change will cause hundreds of millions of premature deaths -- perhaps billions (more).
  5. The most influential climate deniers know that their actions are causing enormous amounts of future death and suffering.
It’s not too late to start addressing these issues legally, but it soon will be. We don't have much time.

Climate death row

What does the death penalty have to do with climate change? A lot, as it turns out. Every person whose future life is threatened by climate change is effectively on death row. Climate change will kill them in the future with a certain probability. Until then, they are waiting, not knowing whether climate change will kill them or not. This applies in particular to two billion innocent children in developing countries.

Unlike the influential climate deniers in my fictitious death-penalty scenario, whose lives are not in the slightest danger, those children really will die prematurely. 
Our emissions really are killing them. Where is the outcry about that?

In this way, the death penalty and climate change are related political and moral issues. If we are genuine about our intention to promote universal human rights, we should dare to compare. If we want to end the death penalty everywhere, it is even more important to rescue a billion innocent children from climate death row.

Climate death (that is, death from hunger, disease, direct heat, violence, or another negative consequence of climate change) is similar to the death penalty in several ways:
People are not very clear about these issues. The public response to my 2012 text suggested that the average person considers the death penalty to be a more serious problem than either poverty or climate change. The public discussion focused on the death penalty, although I had written at length about all three issues, starting with poverty and climate change.

For those of us who consider every human life to be equally valuable, poverty and climate change are more serious issues than the death penalty. In order-of-magnitude estimates, over the coming century perhaps 100,000 people will die prematurely as a result of the death penalty (currently perhaps 1000 per year in China alone). That is profoundly and incomprehensibly shocking, but the human cost of poverty and climate change is much more so. During the same period, perhaps a billion people (10m/year) will die prematurely in connection with poverty, even in the absence of climate change. Perhaps a further billion will die prematurely as a result of climate change. That makes the global human cost of poverty and climate change 10,000 times bigger than the global human cost of the death penalty!

But there is a further important distinction. The death penalty is a bigger crime than poverty or climate change because of the premeditated intention to kill. Climate change will be a bigger tragedy due to the much larger death toll. Those who are contributing most to poverty and climate change (
including climate deniers and fossil-fuel CEOs) do not intend to kill anyone. Instead, they are being negligent. They are fully informed of the deadly consequences of their actions, and proceeding anyway.

Climate change will also cause an enormous number of species to go extinct. Those animals and plants are also on death row. There is a real danger that Homo sapiens will join them, making climate change a death sentence for humanity. In an ever-so-slightly less horrific scenario, people with more money will survive with greater probability, although their quality of life will be essentially destroyed and they will have only themselves to blame. Again, that can only mean one thing: cut all emissions urgently.

The main point of this discussion is to protect the right to life of billions of children. To do that, we have to prevent the actions that are threatening them by attracting attention to the problem and presenting convincing arguments. 


The US situation

No country has contributed more to global warming than the US. The US has also led the world in climate denial, although recently Australia has been catching up.

Noam Chomsky has rightly described as the US Republican party as the world's most dangerous organisation, mainly because of its contribution to global climate change. But his claim would be true even if we considered only US militarism. US forces have bombed 24 countries
since 1945 (here is a map), killing untold millions of civilians, and pushed mainly (not only) by Republicans in the background. If you are looking for an example of the most sinister and hypocritical modern evil, here it is.

Roughly every second US-American is a death penalty supporter (more). In 2012, roughly the same proportion were climate deniers (depending on definition); the proportion has fallen since then, but is still shockingly high. Probably much the same applies to the whole world. It follows that many of my numerous critics were death penalty supporters themselves, falling somewhat embarrassingly into the additional trap of hypocrisy. These commentators deliberately ignored the paragraph where I explained in detail why the death penalty is never justified. Instead, they scandalized my thought experiment about the death penalty for one climate denier, as if that were more important than the premature deaths of a million people due to climate change.

The death penalty is racist, at least in the USA, because the proportion of black victims is greater than the proportion of black people in the general population. My statement was also about racism. The climate denier in my fictional scenario was presumably white;  the victims were presumably black. If you wanted indirect confirmation that racism, like sexism, is almost everywhere in the hidden assumptions of people of all political persuations, the public discussion that followed the discovery of my text was a startling new piece of evidence (more). For some people, it seems, one white life is more valuable than a million black lives. A million!

The question I asked in my scandalous text could be rephrased like this: Are influential climate deniers death-penalty candidates according to the logic of 
100 million American death-penalty supporters? I implied this question for two reasons: first, to expose an inherent flaw in the arguments of those people (and many other people all over the world), and second (and more importantly) to protect the right to life of two billion children in developing countries.

Those Republicans who claim to be Christian should get out their Bibles and read what Jesus said and did. Read about humility, egalitarianism, and caring for other people, especially those who suffer from poverty, illness, or discrimination. Read about telling the truth and exposing hypocrisy. Read about living simply and eschewing luxury. Read about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and pacifism. Jesus probably had olive-colored skin and was himself a victim of the death penalty.

Poverty and climate change

The most common cause of premature death in coming decades and centuries will be a combination of two main factors: climate change and poverty. People with money will probably be able to adapt. Others will not, with often fatal consequences.

Today, about 10 million people are dying prematurely each year because they are living in poverty. Without poverty, they would not die early. This number has been steadily decreasing in recent decades due to economic growth and international development projects. It is now presumably as small as it will ever get. The rate of premature mortality in connection with poverty will increase steadily from now on, for at least the next century, due to climate change.

Every day, over 10,000 children die in poverty in developing countries (more). They usually die of hunger or disease, but the ultimate cause is an unfair global economic system. Every single death is a tragedy. It puts things in perspective to get up in the morning and think of those 10,000 children who will die today. How do their 10,000 mothers and 10,000 fathers feel about that? How do we, the readers of this text, feel about it?

This is happening for two reasons.
So it boils down to basic childhood skills: honesty and sharing. We adults are supposed to teach these skills to our children, but since the rise of "Fridays for Future", our children our trying to teach them to us.

Global poverty is a problem that can and could be solved. The United Nations and many other organizations are working hard on it (more). But as long as we elect politicians that allow tax havens to exist (more) and corporations to have more power than governments (more), the forces preventing progress will be bigger than the forces promoting it.

Climate change is another problem that can and could be solved, and many organizations are working hard on it, but politicians, corporations, the global rich, and widespread apathy are standing in the way.
Again, honesty and sharing are lacking.

The current global death rate in connection with poverty will probably double toward the end of the century due to climate change. It is hard to see what else could happen, given the number and diversity of disastrous predictions in mainstream peer-reviewed scientific journals.

If this assumption is correct, our current emissions are killing 10,000 additional future children every day. In fact, today's greenhouse emissions are probably killing many more future people than that -- perhaps 10 million per year (more).
I am using the word “kill” in the neutral sense of “causing death”, regardless of intention.

In other words: our dishonesty, negligence, and indifference are killing 20 million people per year. Of those, 10 million per year are dying now as a consequence of preventable poverty, and 10 million will die in the future as a consequence of preventable climate change combined with preventable poverty. The sum of these two contributions exceeds the death rate due to violence during the Second World War.

For those of us who regard human lives as our greatest good and every life as equally valuable, this is the world's biggest problem. But it is carefully suppressed, even by those with a "global outlook". On the whole, not even the "lefties" and "greenies" are talking about the future death toll from climate change.

What can we do about that? One option is to attract attention to the basic rights of vulnerable people and how they are being trashed by the global rich, the political right, and the climate deniers. Today, anyone can write a text on that topic, put it in the internet, and send it to social media. Anyone can write about the hypocrisy of a global economic system that likes to talk about human rights and carefully protects the rights of the rich while at the same time quietly ignoring massive rights violations. Anyone can write about the mega-deadly consequences of our greed and indifference.

Philosophical and ethical issues

My statement was related to the trolley problem in ethics. Is it ok to kill one person to save the lives of five people? If a runaway trolley (train carriage) is about to run over and kill five innocent people, is it ok to divert the train onto another track, where it will run over and kill only one, or is it ok to push one person onto the track in front of the trolley, sacrificing one life to save five? The disagreement about these questions suggests that killing someone is about five times worse that failing to take reasonable action to prevent someone's death.

The trolley problem was implied when I wrote

I wish to claim that it is generally ok to kill someone in order to save one million people.

This sentence, as formulated, is obviously true, because the number one million is so much bigger than the number five.
When it comes to defending the right to life of a million people we have to remember that every single person has the same inherent dignity and the same right to live. Multiply that by a million and you have an enormous problem. But even that doesn't justify the death penalty for mass murderers, because the death penalty is never justified (for the usual reasons). A prisoner can reliably be prevented from causing any (further) harm simply by keeping him or her in prison. No further action is needed.

That brings us to more general philosophical issues. What is good and bad behavior? How can we lead a good life?
Is a person who denies climate change despite the massive human consequences "evil"? Or is a person who tries to prevent a climate denier from preventing climate action "evil"?

Climate change has changed the way we approach ethical questions. As the climate crisis deepens, 21st-century ethics will increasingly be based on statements of the following kind:
Climate change and human rights

Climate change is today's biggest human rights issue, because it will seriously affect or kill more people than any other category of human-rights violation. The converse is also true: human rights are the most important climate-change issue.

You wouldn't know that from the public discourse about climate change, which often focuses on money. How much will it cost to reduce emissions? How many jobs will be lost? How much will climate change cost us in the future? What about economic growth? 

Discourse about human rights similarly avoids climate change. Often, it focuses on individuals. Of course it is essential to apply international pressure to free prisoners of conscience and commute death sentences, again and again, for as long as it takes. That's what we do in Amnesty International. But it is also necessary, and even more important due to the enormous numbers of affected people, to consider the basic rights of unidentified climate change victims. As Amnesty emphasizes, every person has the same inherent value, independent of skin color, gender, age, public profile, legal record and so on. Needless to say, this principle applies to influential climate deniers in the same way as it applies to millions of peasant farmers in Bangladesh whose livelihood is threatened by rising sea levels, to give one of many possible examples.


In the rich countries, we are living our lives as if this is not happening. We are in denial about both poverty and climate. The good news is that the preventable child mortality rate has been falling, slowly but surely, for decades. The bad news is that climate change will make it increase again and could double it by the end of the century. This approximate prediction follows directly from common knowledge about physical, social and political aspects of the situation. But almost everyone is ignoring the future death toll in connection with climate change. Instead we are talking about other aspects of climate change -- or avoiding the topic altogether.

Just because the future death rate is hard to predict doesn't mean we should ignore it!

Climate change is also racist, affecting black people more than white, although being caused by white people more than black. It will affect women more than men and children more than adults, making it sexist and agist. 


Human rights are universal. The right to life is obviously the most important right; this point is unfortunately missing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), presumably due to an ambiguity about the death penalty that remains to this day. What is clear is that everyone has the right to life, rich or poor, black or white, adult or child, man or woman, guilty or innocent. Influential climate deniers have the same right to life as the children currently living in poverty in developing countries whose future lives could be destroyed by climate change.

This message has evidently not sunk in, because years after my controversial text hardly anyone is talking about the right to life of a billion people. Since 2012, many have become more aware of the urgency of climate change. But there is still precious little literature or public discussion about long-term future death tolls, nor is there much willingness in the academic community to address this issue. I experienced this when trying to publish an article on that topic in different relevant journals. 

Why are people are not talking about the right to life of a billion people? Perhaps they disagree with the following two sentences? Every person in the world, whether black or white, female or male, young or old, poor or rich, guilty or innocent, has the same right to live. Even influential climate deniers who indirectly kill millions of people by blocking climate solutions have the same right to live. From today's perspective, even the executions that followed the Nuremburg trials in 1946 were not justified, although the Holocaust was clearly the worst crime in history. The death penalty is never justified.

Lessons from the Holocaust

Nazi Germany and its many European collaborators murdered some six million Jews, or two-thirds of Europe's Jewish population. The Holocaust is recognized as history's biggest crime due to the unique combination of three elements: the large number of victims, the extensive premeditation, and the industrialised process. Comparisons between other historical events with the Holocaust are avoided because they trivialise it. That doesn't make the other historical cases of genocide any less horrifying; it merely means that the Holocaust was categorically worse.

What did humanity learn from the Holocaust -- or what should humanity have learned? One point is the importance of constant alertness to prevent a future comparable event. Paradoxically, that constantly involves making Holocaust comparisons. The xenophobia and racism of modern far-right politics is similar in some ways to that of the Nazis and could therefore lead to another case of genocide. To prevent that from happening, we must constantly remind people that the Holocaust really happened, why it happened, and how bad it was.

A future Holocaust-like event is more than a hunch. There is a rather clear scenario on the horizon. In coming decades, millions of climate refugees will desperately try to cross the borders into rich countries. For them, it will be a matter of life or death: either they succeed or they die. The far-right governments of rich countries will lack empathy and feel no obligation to help. They will blame the people back in the 2010s and 2020s for creating this situation. Those people (that's us) did not reduce global emissions when it was urgently necessary to do so. But future far-right governments will not be able to ignore the millions at their borders, no matter how high their walls have become, or how strong their defences. The situation will force them to find solutions. They will therefore develop new technologies to kill millions of people and hygienically dispose of the bodies. They will claim that they have no choice, and it will be hard to disagree with them.

This future scenario is absolutely horrific for several reasons.
Even without a Second Holocaust, we can ask whether climate change is a form of genocide. One might argue that climate change is actually worse, because it will probably cause a hundred or even a thousand times more deaths than the worst historic cases. But there is a big difference. The main actors (the CEOs of the biggest fossil-fuel companies and the most influential climate deniers) do not intend to kill anyone. They are merely criminally negligent. They want to make money, not kill people. From my original text:

... the GW deniers would point out straight away that they don't intend to kill anyone. ... The GW deniers are simply of the opinion that the GW scientists are wrong. ... [They are] enjoying their freedom of speech and perhaps they sincerely believe what they are claiming. They can certainly cite lots of evidence (you can find evidence for just about anything if you look hard enough).

In other words, the main actors are guilty of involuntary manslaughter, not murder. The trolley problem in philosophical ethics, mentioned above, suggests that murder is very roughly five times worse than voluntary manslaughter. By "very roughly", I mean that the ratio probably lies between 3 and 10; it is certainly greater than one. To think in this way is an example of quantitative ethics. It implies that climate change is as bad as the Holocaust if it causes more than 30 milion deaths (6 million times 5) -- which it certainly will. If instead we assume that National Socialism caused altogether 50 million deaths, including all civilian and military deaths in violent conflict in Europe as well as murder in concentration camps and elsewhere, and if we also assume that the trolley-problem ratio is 10:1 rather than 5:1, climate change will be as bad as the Holocaust if it causes 500 million deaths. Again, it surely will (more). On the basis of these semi-quantitative calculations, it is possible to claim, from a human-rights perspective, that there has never been a worse case of criminal negligence that today's influential climate denial.

 
The
Holocaust also taught us that racism (of which antisemitism is an important example) is always wrong. Unfortunately, we are taking a long time to realise what that actually means. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations of 2020 were a promising sign, but they were also a sign that we still have not learned important lessons from the Holocaust.

What does it mean to say that "racism is wrong"? The simple answer is this: there are no races. In the US, it is still considered normal to ask people about their "race" and classify them into white/Caucasian (although the term "European American" would be more appropriate), African American, or Latino/Latina (again, Latin American would be preferable). But all of this is actually nonsense. Human "races" have no biological foundation. They are social constructs. The Neanderthals might have been a different race, but they are no longer with us. People differ from each other in many ways, both biological and cultural. Each person belongs simultaneously to multiple groups. Everyone is an individual, and all individuals have the same inherent, inalienable value and dignity.

Returning to the Holocaust: contrary to Nazi ideology, there was no "racial" difference between those evil Nazis who were primarily responsible for the Holocaust, those who were trying in the background to prevent or mitigate it, or the victims. Nor is there any "racial" difference between us, today, and those evil Nazis. Every one of us has the potential to carry out the most evil deeds imaginable, as the Milgram experiments showed. Every one of us also has the potential for extraordinary goodness.

This is not a theoretical discussion. Today, all rich and most middle-class people in rich countries are actively and knowingly contributing to the future climate catastrophe. That includes most people reading this text, and of course the text's author. Our emissions are killing future people, and we know it -- but we are continuing to emit. Our emissions are gradually making the Second Holocaust more likely -- but we are continuing to emit. From the Holocaust, we learned that we cannot simply regard ourselves as innocent and others as guilty. It may be a cliché, but there is indeed good and bad in everyone. To prevent evil from emerging on a large scale, as it did in Nazi Germany, we need to acknowledge our own evil tendencies and support each other to overcome them.

After my scandalous 2012 text, I was repeatedly accused in public of being "evil". Those enraged people were right. I am evil. Those accusing me were also evil.
We are all evil. But all of us are also good. If we are serious about learning from the Holocaust, we need to support each other, recognizing our individual and collective evil and the importance of constant vigilance to keep it under control, and nurturing our collective goodness. The solution is not to act as if evil doesn't exist, or as if other people are evil and we are not. It is fine to focus on good things provided we continue in the background to guard vigilantly against the re-emergence of evil -- including within ourselves. Many well-meaning people like to focus exclusively on the positive (e.g., good news media), but ultimately any such approach is incomplete. The honest and courageous solution is to find a balance between suppressing evil and promoting good. Today, that's the only way we can reliably increase the probability that young people everywhere will have a liveable future. 

What I am really "calling for"

I don't know how many media reported that I had "called for" the death penalty for climate deniers. Both climate deniers and sensational media had an interest in exaggerating my message. Some German-language media even used the word Forderung (demand). I guess they were desperate to sell newspapers.

Unlike my 2012 text, the present text is "calling for" something. First, the International Criminal Court should identify and try the most influential climate deniers. If found guilty of the charge of indirectly causing millions of future deaths, they should be jailed for life, with the following aims:
As I wrote:

This page is inspired by the project Establishing Crimes Against Future Generations by the World Future Council. Please support the work of the World Future Council!

We don't have time for a long, complex, abstract, academic discussion about this. We can't wait until the end of civilization before realizing that the most influential climate deniers are among the most guilty actors in all of human history, and finally deciding to convict them. At that late stage, the legal profession (or what is left of it) will have other things to worry about.

More generally, I am "calling for" the following:
We need more honesty, compassion, and political will. We need to decide to address the problem seriously, at last. Are we capable of making an honest decision and sticking to it? If millions of individuals make the right decision, the problem can be solved. Only then will the burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of forest, and the production of meat and concrete rapidly slow down and approach zero.

A solution that takes human rights seriously will mean fast economic changes that bring global economic turbulence. But nothing can be more turbulent than what climate change will bring later this century. From that viewpoint, these are reachable goals. It's no longer a question of research to reach them. We now understand the physics, chemistry, biology, geology, technology, economics, psychology, and sociology of climate change in great detail.

Reducing personal emissions

There are many kinds of climate denial. We are all climate deniers to the extent that we are not talking directly about the fatal consequences of our personal emissions. Hardly anyone is prepared to talk openly about the future deaths that we are causing. The taboo is almost universal. In that sense, almost everyone is a denier.

Many people think we only have to stop corporations and governments from emitting. They should change the system so we can continue our lives in the usual way. The problem will then be solved. Not true! The global mean carbon footprint is 5 tonnes CO2 per year. To reach sustainability, this must be halved. For global CO2 to fall, emissions need to be reduced even more. This leaves us a with a personal carbon budget of 2 tonnes 
CO2 per year, which practically counts out flying, regular driving, and regular meat consumption.

Some people will object that aviation represents only 2% of global emissions. That is a very misleading statement:
For the next few decades at least, the best way to reduce aviation emissions will be to reduce aviation. The best way to do that is through internationally harmonized taxation, but that is another issue.

Now, if there were realistic sustainable alternatives to flying, driving, and meat, we could use them and it would be ok. But at the moment there aren't. We will be waiting for decades for these problems to be solved technologically and scaled up so that large numbers of people can take advantage of them. But emissions need to fall drastically now.

The consequences are clear. On the one hand, governments and corporations must urgently reduce emissions at all levels. On the other hand, individuals must urgently reduce personal emissions. Both strategies are necessary and important.

Incidentally, this is is not necessarily a moral or ethical statement. It is merely a logical conclusion. If we want to get global warming under control, this is what we have to do. If we don't, we don't.

But there is also a strong moral element. If we love our children, we have to
stop pretending this problem does not exist. We have to address it directly, and decide solve it. We have to admit that our emissions are contributing to current and future premature deaths, especially in poor countries.

Moreover, we need to be clear that our actions are informed and voluntary. We know that we are contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss by flying, driving, and eatig meat. We also know that we can quite easily reduce our personal contribution, if we want to -- even if we cannot eliminate it.

My personal emissions

If I am "evil", it is not because of my 2012 text. It is because of my lifelong carbon footprint.

The main way people in rich countries can reduce their emissions is by not flying, driving, eating meat, or having children. For these reasons, I don't own a car and mainly use a bicycle for travel around town. I go to conferences and holidays on trains and buses. I don't have any meat in my fridge at home, although I do eat some (mainly chicken or fish). Please join me. It's easier than you think. If you lose one or two friends, you will gain more new ones. If you lose money, you will gain happiness. You might also save money by not driving or flying.

I am also interested in the political question of reducing birth rates and population growth both in both richer and poorer countries. In richer countries, each additional person adds an enormous amount of CO2 to the atmosphere during her or his life, which is a good reason to reduce birth rates, no matter what they might be. In poorer countries, the birth rate is sometimes still far too high -- a problem that can be solved by alleviating poverty and improving education for both girls and boys. In both cases, the quality of life of future generations will be promoted if birth rates fall.

I am not advocating "population control". Instead I am saying: If you love children, don't have any. No one should ever be penalized for having children. Every child is equally valuable, and indeed that is the point. We cannot bring children into the world at the same time as we are destroying their future. The best strategy to reduce population growth in developing countries is to alleviate poverty and improve education for girls and boys, but that is another (very important) topic, and it does not change the fact that one of the most effective actions against climate change that an individual in a rich country can take right now is to avoid having children or encouraging others to have children. 

During the 1990s and 2000s, I flew to and from Australia every 1-2 years, from Europe or North America. Flying presumably represented about half of my personal carbon footprint (that is probably still true for many academics and business people). I had no idea at the time that my travel was causing future deaths, but it was. Every time a passenger jet flies to a distant destination, a fraction of a future person is killed. The fuel burned by a typical passenger jet on a few long-distance return flights is enough to cause the death of one future person (more).

In those quasi-innocent bygone days, I was naively enjoying traveling wherever I wanted to or could afford. I really love to travel! Gradually, I started to realise that flying could have serious consequences, but I was not yet ready to face the truth, namely that it is causing future deaths. Since about 2010, the fatal consequences of burning large amounts of fossil fuels have been clear to me. It is probably also clear to most of my academic colleagues, friends, and relatives. Many of them are still flying wherever they want, or so it seems, although they belong to the best-informed people.

In 2014, I decided never again to fly to an academic conference unless invited. In late 2019, I decided never to fly again except in an emergency. Given the fatal future consequences of emissions from flying, one can argue that flying is only justified if necessary to save lives. I have many dear family members and friends in Australia, some of whom I may never see again -- although I am seriously considering taking the train from Europe to Shanghai, followed by sailing ship, after I retire. But it is more important for
those relatives and friends (and everyone, everywhere) to reduce the future impact of climate change. Hardly anyone is prepared to make that kind of comparison, but it is surely obvious and important. Here is another one: both my parents died in the past few years, and losing them was obviously far more serious than losing the privilege of flying. 

How to reduce global emissions 

If the value of a human life is our greatest value and the foundation of our value system (which hardly anyone will argue with), and if
 the lives of two billion children in developing countries are really threatened by climate change (which is obvious considering the predicted consequences of climate change -- more), then we must urgently do two things:

1. Close down all fossil fuel industries worldwide as soon as possible, AND

2. Reduce individual carbon footprints to below the sustainable level of about 2 tonnes CO2 per person per year, also worldwide (corresponding to the amount of CO2 being absorbed by photosynthesis by plant life on land and in the oceans).

In the absence of a miracle, no other strategy beside points 1 and 2 (both of them) will work. That is true regardless of progress in areas like carbon capture and storage, soil carbon sequestration, geoengineering, carbon dioxide removal, solar radiation management, and so on. These technologies simply cannot scale up to the enormous dimensions that are required, and/or if they did the environmental consequences would be prohibitive. Of course, we also have to stop
deforestation and promote reforestation, urgently. But again the success of that strategy will also be limited, so points 1 and 2 will be necessary regardless of the degree of success.

Therefore, every one of us who understands this problem has no choice but to start implementing both points immediately. For most people in rich countries, that means:

A. Vote green or equivalent and get involved in climate action, and
B. Stop flying, driving, eating meat, and having children (or encouraging others to do so).

There is currently no realistic alternative to the general direction of points A and B, just as there is no alternative to 1 and 2. Of course we can discuss the details, and of course every individual will have to find her or his solution. But that is not the point. The point is that every person everywhere is obliged by the unprecedented enormity of this global problem to reduce their personal footprint to below 2 tonnes CO2 per person per year as soon as possible. I am unaware of any reasonable counterargument. That being the case, everyone must implement both points, A and B, without delay. We have no time to lose. Nothing has ever been more urgent.

Needless to say, I am powerless to tell other people what to do. I am merely presenting a logical argument. I could turn my argument into a plea and write "Please, please, for the sake of our children and future generations, implement points A and B!!!" But I prefer to present facts and arguments, and leave the politics to others.

The stakes have never been higher. We cannot afford to pretend that the above arguments are incorrect and hope for the best, which at the moment almost everyone is doing. The current behavior of the average person on this issue is irrational in the extreme. If we wish to demonstrate that we are thinking, caring people (Homo sapiens), and not some kind of sophisticated lemmings, we have no choice but to urgently implement points 1, 2, A, and B. Anything else represents the worst imaginable betrayal of young people and future generations.


The Catholic condom ban

When writing my 2012 text, I looked for cases in the past few decades in which the actions of one person might have caused a million deaths. Apart from influential climate denial, I only found one: the Catholic condom ban. The Rwandan genocide seemed much more shocking due to the premeditated nature of the killing, but the number of deaths was below one million.

The idea of "death penalty for the Pope" was obviously absurd. I included it in my text only in passing, as an explanatory counterexample.
It exposed a contradiction that is inherent in the opinions of death-penalty supporters, many of whom are Christians: if the death penalty is appropriate for the most serious crimes, what are those crimes exactly? Surely anyone who has indirectly caused the deaths of millions of people (e.g. by not ending the Catholic condom ban in the 1980s) is a candidate? 

Here is the argument in a nutshell:
Like my argument about climate denial, this is merely a logical statement. It is intended to wake people up. I am not "calling for" anything.

The discussion about Catholic pedophilia has made steady progress, although it is surely not over yet. But there has been almost no mention of the human-rights implications of the Catholic condom ban, without which millions of AIDS victims would still be alive today. Tragically, neither the church nor the general public has found the courage to talk about this openly and honestly. Denial is not the answer. The ban is presumably still indirectly causing thousands of AIDS deaths every year. The Wikipedia page on this topic is informative but biased, because so few people have the courage to defend the rights of the victims.


This is religious hypocrisy at his worst: preaching universal love while at the same time indirectly causing massive suffering and death. Christians should read their Bibles, which incidentally say nothing at all about contraception but a lot about moral courage (more).


The death penalty is another case of Christian hypocrisy that Jesus would surely have exposed if he were here today. How can a modern Christian be a death-penalty supporter, as countless millions of Americans are, when Christianity is supposed to be about universal love and forgiveness, and the death penalty caused the world's greatest tragedy from a Christian perspective, namely the death of Jesus? The Old Testament contains many references to the death penalty, explaining when it should be applied according to ancient laws and practices. But the whole point of Christianity is that the teachings of Christ challenged Old Testament law and exposed its hypocrisy, as a Christian internet source explains:

The New Testament does not have any specific teachings about capital punishment. However, the Old Testament ideas of punishment became secondary to Jesus' message of love and redemption. Both reward and punishment are seen as properly taking place in eternity, rather than in this life.

It's surely as simple as that? Incidentally, I may be atheist but I am neither anti-religious nor anti-Catholic.
On the contrary, my best friends and colleagues tend to have an altruistic orientation and for that reason have always included Christians. The Western music that I study in my research and perform in my spare time is a wonderful byproduct of Christian history. I acquired musical skills by performing Christian music. Moreover, I am fascinated by the richness and diversity of the world's religious rituals. Trying to understand their psychology is one of my research areas.

In recent years, Pope Francis has been defending the rights of the global poor and opposing climate change at the highest level, for which he deserves everyone's admiration and support. At the same time, he is failing to introduce urgently needed reforms. Ending the condom ban is one. More generally, all forms of discrimination, based for example on gender or sexual orientation, should be ended, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For those who believe the Bible contains absolute truth, enough evidence can be found. Many scriptures point toward gender equality. While the Bible is unclear about homosexuality, many passages oppose discrimination of any kind.

Similar statements

I am unaware of anyone else who has estimated the number of deaths that an influential climate denier can cause. However, many writers have approached the topic from different directions.

Jean Ziegler has argued that every child who dies of hunger is murdered. While I have the greatest respect and admiration for his courageous and inspiring contribution, I disagree with the use of the word "murder" in this context. There is an important difference between negligence, however extreme, and murder. (The special status of the Holocaust by comparison to other massive crimes involves the premeditated nature of the killing.) But Ziegler is right that most of those dying children (and they are dying right now as I write and you read this — what could be more horrific than that?) could have been saved if we in the rich countries had bothered in the past few decades to create a fair global economic system. In the future, those children will die because right now we are not bothering to stop global warming. I guess an appropriate term for this extreme form of negligence is “indirect killing”. 

Philosopher John Nolt, author of an influential 2015 book on environmental ethics, wrote a paper in 2011 entitled “How Harmful Are the Average American's Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” in which he calculated that the emissions of the average American today are killing or seriously harming one or two future people. If that was not a wake-up call for every rich or middle-class person in every rich or almost-rich country, I don't know what is. But hardly anyone knows about this very important piece of work. Nolt should be a household name.

In her book "Merchants of Doubt", Historian Naomi Oreskes brilliantly documented the actions of past climate deniers. It will be a great day in the history of law and justice when the main culprits are tried according to the evidence that she and others have painstakingly collected. If the trial is fair, they will presumably find themselves behind bars for the rest of their lives. Oreskes should also be a household name.

In the past few years, the frequency of news reports that consider the present and future fatal consequences of climate change has been rising. That is a promising development. In an article published in September 2017, Mark Hertsgaard realized that “Climate denialism is literally killing us”. I like this article, but disagree with two points. First Hertsgaard uses the word “murder”, but the climate deniers do not intend to kill anyone. Second, the number of people who will die in the future as a result of today's climate denialism is much higher than his implied estimates. We are talking about hundreds of millions and possibly billions.

My favorite journalist is George Monbiot. A long time ago, in a discussion transcribed and published in May 2007, he said: “If We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of Millions of People to Death”. The capital letters mean the comment became the title. 

The more people have the courage to talk about this problem directly, the more it will be taken seriously. But we are still a long way from considering the true human consequences of influential climate denial.  It seems that most people are in denial about that — a form of meta-denial. We are living our lives as if this was not happening or as if we didn’t know about it. As if we were innocent.

Inching toward extinction

With every passing year, humanity is inching closer to the ultimate cliff of self-destruction and extinction. 
That is possible (and increasingly likely) if climate change gets out of control, that is, if global mean surface temperature starts to increase of its own accord due to climate feedbacks, with no help from human emissions. The probability of hyper-failure is rising with every year of missed opportunities, which is a good reason to wake people up with a scandalous statement.

It's frightening and sobering to think about just how big this problem really is. It is on the top level of a hierarchy and the other levels are something like this:
Most people are still acting as if human extinction is impossible. Of those who realize it is possible, many are now regarding it as inevitable. In fact, human self-destruction is possible and possibly imminent, but survival is still possible (although increasingly unlikely). Therefore, the struggle for human survival is the most important struggle ever.

Therefore, mitigating climate change should be top priority for everyone everywhere.

The bottom line

In closing, allow me to repeat two main points.

We are talking about a billion human lives. The future victims of global warming are today's children in developing countries. They really exist, right now. They are not "future generations", although of course future generations are also important. The lives of a billion children living right now really will be shortened by global warming, which in plain English means that global warming will kill them, which means our emissions are killing them, which means we are killing them. That these claims follow logically from one another is obvious; the example could be straight from a philosophy textbook. The shocking nature of these statements changes nothing about their truth content (whether they are true is independent of whether they are shocking). If we actively suppress such claims or statements, we are engaging in denial (which also follows logically from the previous statements). But we have known about these causal relationships for several decades, and there has never been a good excuse for denying them.

This is the most important issue in current politics. If we assume that every human life has the same value, and apply risk assessment theory and order-of-magnitude estimates to this problem in a rational way, we see that global warming, upon which everything on this planet depends, is probably more serious that all other comparable problems of global proportions, such as for example the rising wealth gap, the risk of nuclear holocaust, the risk of a genetically manipulated pandemic, loss of biodiversity and holocene extinction (the earth's sixth mass extinction event, this time caused by humans), or the implications of land degradation for future food production. 

Allow me also to say something to those many people who self-righteously presented me as “evil” back in early 2013, and anyone who is still appalled by my original text:

Don't worry about me. I'm ok. Please instead consider those countless millions of people, mainly in developing countries, who will die prematurely as a result of our carbon emissions. Those people really exist, and they really will die early for this reason.

If you believe that the death penalty is never justified, as I do, and if your reason is the same, namely that every human being has the same right to life -- regardless of guilt, innocence, or anything else -- then you will agree that all of us, both individually and collectively, must now:
We, the citizens of today's democratic rich countries, in particular in Western Europe, are living in a dream. We think we have high standards of morality, and we are proud of those standards. We are especially proud that in our countries the death penalty has been ended forever. That is great progress, of course, but it is only the beginning.  It is time for us to realize that humans need food and fresh water to survive, and global warming, caused knowingly by our emissions, will irreversibly reduce both for a large proportion of the world's growing population. That is just one way in which climate change will cut short human lives. It is time for us to realize that every avoidable premature death is a tragedy. That being the case, climate change will be the biggest tragedy humanity has every experienced.

It's still not too late to reduce the magnitude of this future catastrophe, but it soon will be. Was the 2010s the decade in which we missed the last opportunity to save ourselves?



Extracts from selected emails 

The following texts were copied verbatim, with permission of the authors, from emails that I received during December 2012 and January 2013. I do not necessarily agree with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my position.

"Your argument regarding the death penalty is an extreme view but I am sympathetic. I was more surprised by how vituperative and ignorant some people have been in response. Good on you for pointing out how research is carried out, the motivation of scientists and the implications for future generations."

"I am always amazed how people, the so-called climate sceptics among them, find it difficult to cope with doubts and uncertainties such as those that you showed in your text. You gave expression to an important moral dilemma: on one hand the refusal to kill, and the freedom of expression, and on the other hand the fact that people make obviously very wrong decisions that affect us all and that you want to stop. And so they pounce on some words, take them out of context and suddenly you seem to advocate a totalitarian view. Ah well..."

" ‘At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.’
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."

"I am sure you know best, that you haven't done your masterpiece with this article, but your intentions were good and pure. Everybody, who knows you, knows that you are a good and honest man. As your article shows you are also passionate about the future of your children and of whole the mankind."

"I saw the death penalty as a metapher for 'this should have consequences', nothing else…and there are no organizations on the world that caused more pain, deaths and wars than religions. You might have read 'god is not great'…I’m really happy someone who a few people listen too has addressed at least one very critical topic."

"Thank you for the interesting article. It's a sad world where you can't even make a logical argument any more..."


Apart from the excerpts from emails, the opinions expressed on this page are the authors' personal opinions.
Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome at parncutt@gmx.at.
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